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*Ricin definition and facts

*Ricin definition and facts medically edited by: John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP

  • Ricin is a toxic protein found naturally in castor beans from the castor bean plant (Ricinus communis). It can be deadly, but it depends on the dose and route of exposure. If castor beans are chewed and swallowed ricin can be released, however, simply chewing the beans won’t necessarily kill a person.
  • Castor beans are processed to make castor oil, and ricin is part of the waste produced in this process.
  • If ingested, ricin gets inside the body’s cells and prevents them from making proteins they need, killing those cells.
  • It was discovered in 1888 by Peter Hermann Stillmark, a German scientist, working in Russia, who extracted the substance from castor beans.
  • Protein toxins such as ricin have been used experimentally in medicine to kill cancer cells.
  • Early symptoms ingestion usually occur in less than 10 hours. Early symptoms poisoning by inhalation may appear within 4 to 24 hours.
  • It only takes a small amount to kill an adult.
  • This type of poisoning is highly unlikely. It usually needs to be ingested or injected, and large amounts need to be inhaled to be toxic.
  • There is no antidote for ricin poisoning, thus there is no cure for it. Avoiding exposure is the best preventative.
  • If exposure cannot be avoided, the first step in treatment is to get it off or out of the body as quickly as possible.
  • Treatment for poisoning involves supportive medical care to minimize the effects of the poison.

What is ricin, and where does it come from?

  • Castor beans are processed throughout the world to make castor oil. Ricin is part of the waste "mash" produced when castor oil is made.
  • Ricin is a poison protein found naturally in castor beans from the castor bean plant (Ricinus communis). If castor beans are chewed and swallowed, the released ricin can cause injury.
  • It can be in the form of a powder, a mist, or a pellet, or it can be dissolved in water or weak acid.
  • It is a stable substance under normal conditions, but can be inactivated by heat above 80 degrees centigrade (176 degrees Fahrenheit).

How soon do poisoning symptoms start, and how long does death take?

  • The major symptoms of ricin poisoning depend on the route of exposure and the dose received, though many organs may be affected in severe cases.
  • Initial symptoms of 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 it, 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.
  • Skin and eye exposure: It 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.
  • Ricin poisoning could kill a person within 36 to 72 hours of exposure, depending on the route of exposure (inhalation, ingestion, or injection) and the dose received.

How much ricin is lethal?

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.

  • Effects of this type of poisoning depend on whether it was inhaled, ingested, or injected.
  • It is difficult to say exactly how much ricin could kill a person as it depends on the castor beans: their size, weight, moisture content, time of harvest, and other factors. The minimum number of castor beans associated with death was 2, but it symptoms of castor bean poisoning have been documented with as few as one half a bean, to up to 30 beans.

How you could be exposed to ricin, and how deadly is it?

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • In 1978, Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian writer and journalist who was living in London, died after he was attacked by a man with an umbrella. The umbrella had been rigged to inject a poison ricin pellet under Markov's skin.
  • 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.
  • 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.

What is ricin used for?

Ricin is found in the byproducts of castor oil production. It is a protein. Unfortunately, it is used as a biological weapon and by assassins.

  • In the 1940s the U.S. military experimented with using it as a possible warfare agent. In some reports it has possibly been used as a warfare agent in the 1980s in Iraq and more recently by terrorist organizations.
  • In 1978, Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian writer and journalist who was living in London, died after he was attacked by a man with an umbrella. The umbrella had been rigged to inject a poison ricin pellet under Markov's skin.
  • It has been used experimentally in medicine to kill cancer cells. Protein toxins such as ricin kill cells and if it can be properly targeted, the goal would be to use it to selectively kill cancer cells while normal cells are spared.

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Identifying the Symptoms of Ricin Poisoning

Ricin can take many forms: It can be a powder, a mist, a pill or pellet, and can be dissolved in water and other liquids. This means that a person can contract ricin poisoning via inhalation or ingestion; the initial symptoms of ricin poisoning depend upon both the degree and route of exposure. Accidental exposure to ricin unrelated to the ingestion of castor beans would be extremely unlikely to occur.

Is there a treatment, antidote, or cure for ricin poisoning?

  • Because there is no antidote exists for ricin, the most important factor is avoiding exposure to it in the first place.
  • If exposure cannot be avoided, the most important factor is then getting the ricin off or out of the body as quickly as possible.
  • Symptomatic poisoning is treated by giving victims supportive medical care to minimize the effects of the poisoning. The types of supportive medical care would depend on several factors, such as the route by which victims were poisoned (that is, whether poisoning was by inhalation, ingestion, or skin or eye exposure). Care could include such measures as helping victims breathe, giving them intravenous fluids (fluids given through a needle inserted into a vein), giving them medications to treat conditions such as seizure and low blood pressure, flushing their stomachs with activated charcoal (if the ricin has been very recently ingested), or washing out their eyes with water if their eyes are irritated.

What should I do if I've been exposed to ricin?

  • Exposure to this type of poisoning is not always fatal, and it's possible to survive.
  • Get fresh air right away by leaving the area where the ricin was released.
    • If it release was outside, move away from the area where it was released.
    • If it release was indoors, get out of the building.
  • If you are near a release of ricin, emergency coordinators may tell you to either evacuate the area or to "shelter in place" inside a building to avoid being exposed to the chemical.
  • If you think you may have been exposed to this type of poisoning, you should remove your clothing, rapidly wash your entire body with soap and water, and get medical care as quickly as possible.
  • Removing your clothing:
    • Quickly take off clothing that may have ricin on it. Any clothing that has to be pulled over the head should be cut off the body instead of pulled over the head.
    • If you are helping other people remove their clothing, try to avoid touching any contaminated areas, and remove the clothing as quickly as possible.
  • Washing yourself:
    • As quickly as possible, wash any ricin from your skin with large amounts of soap and water. Washing with soap and water will help protect people from any chemicals on their bodies.
    • If your eyes are burning or your vision is blurred, rinse your eyes with plain water for 10 to 15 minutes. If you wear contacts, remove them and put them with the contaminated clothing. Do not put the contacts back in your eyes (even if they are not disposable contacts). If you wear eyeglasses, wash them with soap and water. You can put your eyeglasses back on after you wash them.
  • Disposing of your clothes:
    • After you have washed yourself, place your clothing inside a plastic bag. Avoid touching contaminated areas of the clothing. If you can't avoid touching contaminated areas, or you aren't sure where the contaminated areas are, wear rubber gloves, turn the bag inside out and use it to pick up the clothing, or put the clothing in the bag using tongs, tool handles, sticks, or similar objects. Anything that touches the contaminated clothing should also be placed in the bag. If you wear contacts, put them in the plastic bag, too.
    • Seal the bag, and then seal that bag inside another plastic bag. Disposing of your clothing in this way will help protect you and other people from any chemicals that might be on your clothes.
    • When the local or state health department or emergency personnel arrive, tell them what you did with your clothes. The health department or emergency personnel will arrange for further disposal. Do not handle the plastic bags yourself.
  • For more information about cleaning your body and disposing of your clothes after a chemical release, see Chemical Agents: Facts About Personal Cleaning and Disposal of Contaminated Clothing.
  • If someone has ingested this poison, do not induce vomiting or give fluids to drink.
  • Seek medical attention right away. Consider dialing 911 and explaining what has happened.

How do authorities confirm cases of suspected ricin poisoning?

  • If authorities suspect that people have inhaled ricin, a potential clue would be that a large number of people who had been close to each other rapidly developed fever, cough, and excess fluid in their lungs. These symptoms would likely be followed by severe breathing problems and possibly death.
  • If in suspected situations where the poison may have been disseminated, preliminary environmental testing by public health or law enforcement authorities detects ricin in powders or materials released into the immediate environment. Persons occupying such areas may initially be observed for signs of poisoning.
  • CDC can assess selected specimens on a provisional basis for urinary ricinine, an alkaloid in the castor bean plant. Only urinary ricinine testing is available at CDC or the LRN.

Where can I get more information about ricin?

You can contact one of the following:

Regional poison control center: 1-800-222-1222

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

  • Public Response Hotline (CDC)
    • 800-CDC-INFO
    • 888-232-6348 (TTY)
  • E-mail inquiries: cdcinfo@cdc.gov

REFERENCES:

AL-Tamimi, et al. "A Case of Castor Bean Poisoning." Sultan Qaboos University Medical Journal. 2008 Mar; 8(1): 83–87.
<https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3087745/>

Audi, J., MD, et al. "Ricin Poisoning: A Comprehensive Review." Nov 9, 2005. JAMA. 2005;294(18):2342-2351. doi:10.1001/jama.294.18.2342
<http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/201818>

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Facts About Ricin." Updated: May 03, 2013.
<https://emergency.cdc.gov/agent/ricin/facts.asp>

FitzGerald , D., et al. "Targeted toxin therapy for the treatment of cancer." J Natl Cancer Inst. 1989 Oct 4;81(19):1455-63.
<https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2550658>

Rogers, Kara. "Ricin." Updated: Aug 13, 2013.
<https://www.britannica.com/science/ricin>

Last Editorial Review: 2/14/2017

Reviewed on 2/14/2017
References
REFERENCES:

AL-Tamimi, et al. "A Case of Castor Bean Poisoning." Sultan Qaboos University Medical Journal. 2008 Mar; 8(1): 83–87.
<https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3087745/>

Audi, J., MD, et al. "Ricin Poisoning: A Comprehensive Review." Nov 9, 2005. JAMA. 2005;294(18):2342-2351. doi:10.1001/jama.294.18.2342
<http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/201818>

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Facts About Ricin." Updated: May 03, 2013.
<https://emergency.cdc.gov/agent/ricin/facts.asp>

FitzGerald , D., et al. "Targeted toxin therapy for the treatment of cancer." J Natl Cancer Inst. 1989 Oct 4;81(19):1455-63.
<https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2550658>

Rogers, Kara. "Ricin." Updated: Aug 13, 2013.
<https://www.britannica.com/science/ricin>

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