Ricin is a protein derived from the beans of the castor plant (R communis). Castor beans are used in the production of castor oil, a brake and hydraulic fluid constituent. Ricin makes up 3-5% of the “waste mash” that is produced during this process. Separating out this protein is not difficult; it only requires chromatography, a common undergraduate chemistry skill.
Symptoms from exposure to ricin depend on the route of exposure and the amount of absorption. Routes of exposure are respiratory (inhaled aerosol), gastrointestinal (GI [ingested]), and percutaneous (injected).
- If exposed to ricin through inhaled aerosol, it will most likely affect numerous individuals simultaneously. In this case, a cluster of people would develop similar symptoms over a brief period, typically within 8 hours following inhalation. Such an occurrence would point to the possibility of an intentional act. People exposed to the ricin may experience symptoms such as fever, nausea and vomiting, a progressively severe cough, and congestion in the nose and the throat. Other symptoms associated with inhalation of ricin include difficulty breathing and tightness in the chest. With significant exposure to ricin, breathing difficulties occur within 12-24 hours. A chest x-ray may reveal excess fluid in the lungs.
- If exposed to ricin by ingesting contaminated foods or beverages, symptoms may initially mimic food poisoning, usually within 6 hours after ingestion. People who ingested ricin may feel abdominal pain, often accompanied by vomiting and diarrhea. Because of this, they may also become dehydrated. Although ingesting ricin is usually less toxic than exposure through inhalation, with significant amounts of the poison, resulting symptoms may become more severe and possibly result in death.
- People injected with ricin, either in pellet form or with it dissolved in a liquid, may experience pain and swelling at the injection site. They may experience other flulike symptoms as well, such as nausea, vomiting, and body aches. More severe symptoms will occur later and a critical life-threatening syndrome will develop.
When to Seek Medical Care
A person exposed to ricin should seek medical attention as soon as possible.
- If in an area where ricin has been released and people may have been exposed to it, they must immediately leave that area and move to an area with fresh air.
- If near an area where ricin has been released, people must wait for emergency personnel to advise them regarding appropriate evacuation procedures.
- In an aerosol attack, people should use protective masks that are effective in preventing toxicity.
- To avoid possible contamination, people exposed to ricin must remove and dispose of any clothing and thoroughly wash their skin with copious amounts of soap and water. If their eyes are irritated, people must wash them out with water.