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Ricin

Ricin Overview

Ricin is a powerful poison that could be used as an agent of biological warfare or as a weapon of mass destruction (WMD). Derived from the castor bean, it is easily and inexpensively produced, highly toxic, and stable in aerosol form. People can be affected by breathing it in, by being injected with it, or by coming in contact with it through contaminated food and water.

While it cannot be passed on from one person to another, there is no treatment or vaccine that can protect against it. If used in large enough quantities, its effects could overwhelm local health care resources. In 2004, three U.S. Senate office buildings were closed after ricin was found in the mailroom. Earlier, ricin was found at a White House mail-processing center as well as a post office in South Carolina. Ricin has also been a factor in other criminal and terrorists investigations both in the U.S. and overseas dating back to the early 1990s.

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Ricin Symptoms

Symptoms of ricin exposure vary depending on the type of exposure as well as how much was absorbed. People can be exposed by breathing it in as a result of it being sprayed as an aerosol, from consuming it in contaminated food or water, and from being injected with it.

If the ricin is inhaled, it’s likely that more than one person will be affected. In that case, a cluster of people would likely develop similar symptoms within 8 hours of the exposure. Symptoms would include:

  • Fever
  • Nausea and vomiting,
  • Progressive severe cough
  • Congestion in the nose and throat.
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest tightness

With significant exposure to ricin, breathing difficulties would occur within 12 to 24 hours. A chest x-ray might show excess fluid in the lungs.

If ricin is consumed, symptoms might initially mimic food poisoning, usually within 6 hours. Possible symptoms include:

Consuming ricin is usually less toxic than inhaling it. But with significant amounts of the poison, the symptoms could become more severe and result in death.

Symptoms of injection with ricin include:

  • Pain and swelling at the injection site
  • Flulike symptoms
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Body aches.

As time passes, symptoms become more severe, and a life-threatening syndrome can develop.

When to Seek Medical Care

Anyone exposed to ricin should seek immediate medical attention.

  • If you are in an area where ricin has been released, you need to leave the area immediately and move to someplace with fresh air.
  • If you are near an area where ricin has been released, wait for emergency personnel to advise you, and then follow their direction about evacuating the area.
  • If there is an aerosol attack, use of proper protective masks, if they are available, can help prevent poisoning.

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