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 late 1970s.
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:
- 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
- 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.
Self-Care at Home
- If there is any possibility you have been exposed to ricin, you need to seek immediate medical attention.
- To avoid possible contamination after a likely exposure, remove and dispose of any clothing, and thoroughly wash your skin with lots of soap and water. If your eyes are irritated, wash them out with water.
Exams and Tests
A diagnosis of ricin exposure, is based primarily on symptoms and the likelihood of an exposure having happened.
In cases where the exposure is likely to have come from an injection, diagnosis is extremely difficult. In addition, diagnostic testing has limited value. There are some sophisticated diagnostic tests that can identify ricin in the body up to 24 hours after exposure. Those tests, though, are not widely available, and in general, there are no tests currently used that can definitively confirm exposure. Nevertheless, you will most likely undergo a complete physical examination by a doctor.
Regardless of how you were exposed, treatment will mainly be supportive since there is no antidote or vaccine for ricin.
- If exposure is from inhaling the ricin, you may need assistance with breathing. If your breathing problems are severe, you may need to have a breathing tube inserted into your trachea so a mechanical ventilator can help you breathe.
- If ricin was consumed, the health care team may pump your stomach. You may also be given simply activated charcoal to help soak up the poison. You also will receive fluids intravenously to treat dehydration.
- You may receive medications to treat seizures and low blood pressure.
- If exposure was by injection, your doctor may give you antibiotics to prevent infection. You may also receive a tetanus shot as a precautionary measure.
Surgical care is not necessary for exposure to ricin unless it was injected. If it was, the injection site should be evaluated to see whether a foreign object is present. If so, the object will need to be surgically removed.
Depending on the severity of the symptoms, you may be admitted to the hospital for monitoring.
The only effective prevention against the effects of an attack with ricin is avoidance; unfortunately, no antidote or vaccine exists. Currently, studies are ongoing to find possible vaccines and ricin inhibitors. Protective masks have been shown to be effective in preventing toxicity during an aerosol attack.
Depending on the dose and the means of exposure, death can occur within 36-72 hours following the time of exposure. If death has not occurred within 3-5 days, recovery is likely.
For More Information
For more information and help if you or someone in your vicinity is exposed, contact the Regional Poison Control Center by calling (800) 222-1222.