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What is ricin?

April 18, 2013 - Ben Klein

A Mississippi man was taken into custody Wednesday accused of mailing letters containing ricin, a toxic chemical found naturally in Castor beans used in experiments by the U.S. Military and in the assassination a Bulgarian dissident in the late 1970's.

Paul Kevin Curtis, 45, is believed to be the individual responsible for mailing three letters to the White House, U.S. Senator Roger Wicker and a Mississippi judge that contained a "granular substance that preliminary tested positive for ricin," according the FBI.

The letters contained the material confirmed through field testing and laboratory testing to contain ricin, Senate Seargant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer told the Associated Press Thursday. The FBI has not yet reported the results of its own testing of the materials sent to Wicker and President Obama.

"Our field tests indicate it was ricin. Our lab tests confirm it was ricin. So I don't get why others are continuing to use equivocal words about this," Gainer said.

Ricin is a poison found naturally in castor beans and can be found in the form of a powder, a mist, a pellet or it can be dissolved in water or weak acid, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ricin is released when castor beans are chewed or swallowed and can cause injury. It can also be made from the material left over from processing castor beans which are used around the world to make castor oil.

"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," according to the CDC. "If made into a partially purified material or refined into a terrorist agent, ricin could be used to expose people through the air, food, or water."

"Ricin is very toxic. It 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 may cause death," the CDC said.

Ricin has been used experimentally to kill cancer cells.

It was also used in 1978 to kill Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian writer and journalist living in London who died after he was "attacked by a man with an umbrella" that had been "rigged to inject a poison ricin pellet under Markov's skin," the CDC said.

The U.S. Military also reportedly experimented with ricin as a possible warfare agent in the 1940s. Ricin has also been possibly used in Iraq in the 1980s in Iraq as a chemical warfare agent.

The effects of ricin poisoning depend on whether it was enhaled, ingested, or injected.

"In general, when the dose is the same, being exposed to ricin by injection has the greatest potential for causing illness, followed by inhalation, and then ingestion," according to the CDC.

The FBI said in a national press release the envelope addressed to the President was "immediately quarantined by U.S. Secret Service personnel, and a coordinated investigation with the FBI was initiated" and "Any time suspicious powder is located in a mail facility, field tests are conducted. The field and other preliminary tests can produce inconsistent results. Any time field tests indicate the possibility of a biological agent, the material is sent to an accredited laboratory for further analysis. Only a full analysis performed at an accredited laboratory can determine the presence of a biological agent such as ricin. Those tests are currently being conducted and generally take 24 to 48 hours."

In instances of exposure to ricin the CDC recommends leaving the area where the ricin was released; quickly remove your clothing; wash your entire body with soap and water; and seek medical care as quickly as possible.

More information can be found online at


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