A hazardous materials response team truck outside a mail sorting facility in Hyattsville, Maryland. An envelope addressed to U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker tested positive for ricin at the facility where mail bound for the U.S. Capitol is sorted. Credit: Getty Images
The ricin scare in Washington after suspicious packages arrived at the White House and some Congressional offices – including a letter mailed to Sen. Roger Wicker (R, Mississippi) that tested positive for ricin – raises questions about the deadly poison and how it works.
To shed some light on this byproduct of castor oil production that can be used as a chemical weapon, TheBlaze gathered up the following key background information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- Ricin is a poison found naturally in castor beans.
- Castor beans are processed throughout the world to make castor oil. Ricin is part of the waste “mash” produced when castor oil is made.
- It would take a deliberate act to make ricin and use it to poison people. Unintentional exposure to ricin is highly unlikely, except through the ingestion of castor beans.
- Death from ricin poisoning could take place within 36 to 72 hours of exposure, depending on the route of exposure (inhalation, ingestion, or injection) and the dose received.
- No antidote exists for ricin (although vaccines are being developed that may protect against ricin exposure).
- Ricin poisoning is not contagious. Ricin-associated illness cannot be spread from person to person through casual contact. However, if you come into contact with someone who has ricin on their body or clothes, you could become exposed to it.
- In the 1940s the U.S. military experimented with using ricin as a possible warfare agent. In some reports ricin has possibly been used as a warfare agent in the 1980s in Iraq and more recently by terrorist organizations.
- If made into a partially purified material or refined into a terrorist or warfare agent, ricin could be used to expose people through the air, food, or water.
- It can be in the form of a powder, a mist, or a pellet, or it can be dissolved in water or weak acid.
- Ricin works by getting inside the cells of a person’s body and preventing the cells from making the proteins they need. Without the proteins, cells die. Eventually this is harmful to the whole body, and death may occur.
- Skin and eye exposure: Ricin is unlikely to be absorbed through normal skin. Contact with ricin powders or products may cause redness and pain of the skin and the eyes. However, if you touch ricin that is on your skin and then eat food with your hands or put your hands in your mouth, you may ingest some.
- Effects of ricin poisoning depend on whether ricin was inhaled, ingested, or injected.
- Initial symptoms of ricin poisoning by inhalation may occur as early as 4- 8 hours and as late as 24 hours after exposure. Following ingestion of ricin, initial symptoms typically occur in less than 10 hours.
- Inhalation: Within a few hours of inhaling significant amounts of ricin, the likely symptoms would be respiratory distress (difficulty breathing), fever, cough, nausea, and tightness in the chest. Heavy sweating may follow as well as fluid building up in the lungs (pulmonary edema). This would make breathing even more difficult, and the skin might turn blue. Excess fluid in the lungs would be diagnosed by x-ray or by listening to the chest with a stethoscope. Finally, low blood pressure and respiratory failure may occur, leading to death. In cases of known exposure to ricin, people having respiratory symptoms should seek medical care.
- Ingestion: If someone swallows a significant amount of ricin, he or she would likely develop vomiting and diarrhea that may become bloody. Severe dehydration may be the result, followed by low blood pressure. Other signs or symptoms may include seizures, and blood in the urine. Within several days, the person’s liver, spleen, and kidneys might stop working, and the person could die.
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