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CDC Urges Ricin Poisoning Awareness

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

Ricin Poisoning

Ricin comes from castor beans. It's a natural byproduct of castor oil production. It doesn't take much technology to make it, although it's not so easy to turn it into a weapon.

Ricin is most toxic when inhaled. Weaponized ricin is milled to a very fine powder, which can hang in still air for hours. Exactly how ricin might work if used to poison a water supply is -- fortunately -- unknown.

"There is no history of ricin poisoning of a water supply. But that is a scenario we have to think about," Belson says. "There are a lot of variables. It depends on how pure it is, on the way it is processed, and on the way it is placed in the water. ... If we're talking about a large reservoir, that threat would be very, very low possibility. You'd have to have a lot of ricin. But putting ricin into a person's drink, or into a very local water supply, that is a potential threat."

Belson says the CDC does not yet know how pure, or how finely milled, the ricin found in South Carolina is.

Today's issue of the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report carries an overview of what is known about ricin poisoning. The main points:

  • Ricin poisoning can come after eating or drinking the toxin, after inhaling the toxin, or after injection of the toxin.
  • Ricin poisoning looks, at first, like a viral illness. If swallowed, mild poisoning causes nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and/or abdominal pain. Moderate to severe poisoning progresses -- in four to 36 hours -- to low blood pressure, liver and kidney failure, and possibly death.
  • Inhaled ricin causes illness within eight hours. Coughing progresses to breathing difficulty and often death. Other than direct injection, this is the most dangerous form of ricin poisoning.
  • Ricin poisoning should be suspected if these symptoms are happening to a lot of people in the same area, or if lots of people start getting severe intestinal or respiratory problems. If there's a credible reason to believe that there's been a ricin attack in one's community, people with early symptoms should seek immediate help.
  • Anyone who thinks they might have ricin poisoning should call their local poison control center -- (800) 222-1222 -- and local health department.

There's no lab test that can tell whether a person has been poisoned with ricin.

"It's difficult to recognize ricin poisoning. It can resemble a simple viral illness," Belson says. "Recognition should go with certain clues like an increased number of patients coming to hospital, or an illness progressing unexpectedly, or illness where there is a credible threat of ricin exposure."

There's no specific treatment for -- or vaccine against -- ricin poisoning. A person who has suffered ricin poisoning is given intravenous fluids and drugs, such as dopamine, that support blood pressure. Activated charcoal can be given to people with known or suspected ricin poisoning if they are not yet vomiting and if they are breathing properly. Stomach pumping can be done only within an hour of ricin ingestion.

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