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CDC Urges Ricin Poisoning Awareness

Mysterious Letter Found With Vial of Poison Warns of Jan. 4 Action
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WebMD Health News

Nov. 20, 2003 -- A vial of deadly ricin toxin and a threatening note -- found last month at a South Carolina mail facility -- worry federal health officials.

Despite questionable handling of the incident by postal workers and local health authorities, nobody was exposed to the dangerous biological poison. There were no illnesses or deaths and no contamination of mail or mail equipment.

A Terroristic Deadline

But a letter placed in an envelope with the small, metal, watertight vial of ricin carried a threat. The FBI, which is leading the investigation of the incident, has not released the exact contents of the note. But local law enforcement authorities told Greenville News reporter Tim Smith that it carried a warning.

That threat, according to the Greenville News: If a new federal rule limiting the hours a truck driver can stay on the road goes into effect, large quantities of ricin would be added to the water supply. The rule becomes effective on Jan. 4, 2004.

"We are well aware of that date," Martin Belson, MD, medical toxicologist at the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health, tells WebMD.

Belson says it isn't clear exactly where or what kind of water supply the would-be terrorist has in mind.

"At this point in time we do not feel, based on information in hand, that there is any imminent public health threat," Belson says. "But until this investigation is closed, we have to be vigilant. Ricin is a very toxic poison."

Less Than Perfect Handling

The letter containing the vial of ricin wasn't stamped or addressed to anyone. It's not clear how it got into the Greenville mail facility, which is not a post office but a warehouse-like building that each day handles about 20,000 pieces of mail.

A postal worker found the envelope about 2:30 a.m. on Oct. 15. Typed on the outside were the words, "caution -- Ricin -- poison." At 8 a.m., the envelope was turned over to a supervisor. At 1:30 p.m., somebody alerted the Greenville Sheriff's office. A deputy delivered the package to an FBI agent, who took it to the State Law Enforcement Division for inspection, which sent it to the state health department. On Oct. 20, the vial was FedExed to the CDC, which on Oct. 21 confirmed that it truly contained ricin. The public was not informed, nor the mail facility closed, until Oct. 22.

The FBI -- and the CDC -- have interviewed all 36 workers at the mail facility, as well as truckers who carry mail to and from the site. The FBI, as a matter of policy, has no comment on this or any other ongoing investigation, says Tom O'Neill, spokesman for the FBI's South Carolina Headquarters in Columbia.

"All logical leads are being pursued," O'Neill tells WebMD.

But with no end to the investigation in sight, the CDC wants citizens and health-care workers to know what to look out for.

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