Chemical Terrorism Response
There are many different types of chemical terrorism, but our lab can test for ricin only. Ricin is a poison found naturally in castor beans. If castor beans are chewed and swallowed, the released ricin can cause injury. Ricin can be made from the waste material left over from processing castor beans. 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.
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 has been used experimentally in medicine to kill cancer cells.
It would take a deliberate act to make ricin and use it to poison people. Accidental 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.
Signs & Symptoms Of Ricin Exposure
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 ricin poisoning by inhalation may occur within 8 hours of exposure. Following ingestion of ricin, initial symptoms typically occur in less than six (6) 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 that started within 12 hours of inhaling ricin should seek medical care.
- Ingestion: If someone swallows a significant amount of ricin, he or she would 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 hallucinations, 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: 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.
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.