DOCTOR'S VIEW ARCHIVE

Ricin - Poison at the Capital?

Medical Authors and Editors: Barbara K. Hecht, Ph.D. and Frederick Hecht, M.D.

Feb. 3, 2004 -- A suspicious substance was found in the mail room of the Senate office of the majority leader, Sen. Bill Frist, yesterday. Tests reportedly indicated the presence of the poison ricin.

Feb. 4, 2004 -- Tests confirmed that the substance is ricin.

Ricin from castor mash

Ricin is a protein made from the waste left over from processing castor beans. The castor plant, which is called Ricinus communis, is found throughout the world. Ricin is fairly easy to extract.

Worldwide a million tons of castor beans are processed annually in the production of castor oil. The waste mash from this process is 5% ricin by weight.

Ricin can be in the form of a powder, mist, pellet, or it can be dissolved in water or weak acid. Ricin is quite stable and is not affected much by extreme conditions such as very hot or very cold temperatures.

The signs and symptoms Ricin is extremely toxic by several routes of exposure. When inhaled as a small particle aerosol, this toxin can produce pathologic changes within 8 hours and severe respiratory symptoms followed by acute respiratory failure within 36-72 hours.