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Ricin is poisonous if inhaled, injected, or ingested, acting as a toxin by the inhibition of protein synthesis. While there is no known antidote, the US military has developed a vaccine. Symptomatic and supportive treatment is available. Long term organ damage is likely in survivors. Ricin causes severe diarrhea and victims can die of shock. (See abrin).
Deaths caused by ingestion of seeds are rare. Eight beans are considered toxic for an adult. A solution of saline and glucose has been used to treat ricin overdose.  The case experience is not as negative as popular perception would indicate.
- Ricin A is an N-glycoside hydrolase that specifically removes an adenine base from ribosomal RNA, resulting in an inhibition of protein synthesis.
- Ricin B is a lectin that binds galactosyl residues and is important in assisting ricin A's entry into a cell by binding with a cell surface component.
Many plants such as barley have the A chain but not the B chain. Since people do not get sick from eating large amounts of such products, ricin A is of extremely low toxicity as long as the B chain is not present.
Ricin is easily purified from castor-oil manufacturing waste. The seed-pulp left over from pressing for castor oil contains on average about 5% by weight of ricin. Since 0.2 mg of purified Ricin constitutes a fatal dose, this is a considerable amount of ricin.
In the United States, a person caught manufacturing or possessing ricin may be sentenced to up to 30 years in prison.
Potential medicinal use
Ricins may have therapeutic use in the treatment of cancer. Ricin could be linked to a monoclonal antibody to target malignant cells recognized by the antibody. Genetic modification of ricin is believed to be possible to lessen its toxicity to humans, but not to the cancer cells. A promising approach is also to use the non-toxic B subunit as a vehicle for delivering antigens into cells thus greatly increasing their immunogenicity. Use of ricin as an adjuvant has potential implications for developing mucosal vaccines.
Therapeutically, ricin is used in magic bullets to specifically target and destroy cancer cells.
Use as a chemical/biological warfare agent
The United States investigated ricin for its military potential during the First World War. At that time it was being considered for use either as a toxic dust or as a coating for bullets and shrapnel. The dust cloud concept could not be adequately developed, and the coated bullet/shrapnel concept would violate the Hague Convention of 1899. The War ended before it was weaponized.
During the Second World War the United States and Canada undertook studying ricin in cluster bombs. Though there were plans for mass production and several field trials with different bomblet concepts, the end conclusion was that it was no more economical than using phosgene. This conclusion was based on comparison of the final weapons rather than ricin's toxicity (LD50 <30 mg.min.m–3). Ricin was given the military symbol W.
The best-known documented use of ricin as an agent of biological warfare was by the Soviet Union's KGB during the Cold War. In 1978, the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was assassinated by Bulgarian secret police who surreptitiously 'shot' him on a London street with a modified umbrella using compressed gas to fire a tiny pellet contaminated with ricin into his leg. He died in a hospital a few days later; the body of Georgi Markov was passed to a special poison branch of the British MOD who discovered the pellet during an autopsy. The main suspect was the Bulgarian secret police; this was because Georgi Markov had defected from Bulgaria several years prior to the incident and was wanted for writing many controversial books on the communist government at the time, however, it was believed at the time that Bulgaria would not have been able to produce the poison, and it was also believed that the KGB had supplied it. The KGB denied any involvement although high-profile KGB defectors Oleg Kalugin and Oleg Gordievsky have since confirmed the KGB's involvement. Earlier, Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn also suffered (but survived) ricin-like symptoms after a 1971 encounter with KGB agents.
Despite ricin's extreme toxicity and utility as an agent of chemical/biological warfare, it is extremely difficult to limit the production of the toxin. Under both the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention and the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, ricin is listed as a schedule 1 controlled substance. Despite this, more than 1 million metric tonnes of castor beans are processed each year, and approximately 5% of the total is rendered into a waste containing high concentrations of ricin toxin.
To put ricin used as weapon into perspective, it is worth noting that as a biological weapon or chemical weapon, ricin may be considered as not very powerful, if only in comparison with other poisons such as botulinum or anthrax. Hence, a military willing to use biological weapons and having advanced resources would rather use either of the latter instead. Ricin is easy to produce, but is not as practical nor likely to cause as high casualties as other agents. Ricin denatures (ie, the protein changes structure and becomes less dangerous) much more readily than anthrax spores, which may remain lethal for decades. (Jan van Aken, an expert on biological weapons explained in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel that he judges it rather reassuring that Al Qaeda experimented with ricin as it suggests their inability to produce botulin or anthrax.)
Pure ricin could be dispersed through the air, but ozone, nitrogen oxides, and other pollutants would oxidize it within a few hours, rendering it harmless. Since it acts as an enzyme, catalyzing destruction of ribosomes, even a single oxidation is likely to render the ricin molecule harmless. Presumably it could be sealed inside some sort of dust particle that would dissolve in water, but this would be difficult.
The major reason it is dangerous is that there is no specific antidote, and that it is very easy to obtain (the castor bean plant is a common ornamental, and can be grown at home without any special care). Ricin is actually several orders of magnitude less toxic than botulinum or tetanus toxin, but those are more difficult to obtain.
Patented extraction process
The patent was removed from the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) database sometime in 2004, but is still available online through international patent databases. Modern theories of protein chemistry cast doubt on the effectiveness of the methods disclosed in the patent.
Detected ricin incidents
Assassination of Bulgarian Dissident Georgi Markov, London 1978
On September 7, 1978 the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was shot in the leg in public on Waterloo Bridge in the middle of London by a man using a weapon built into an umbrella. The weapon embedded a small pellet in Markov's leg which contained ricin. Markov died three days later.
Related arrests in Britain in 2003
On 5 January, 2003 the Metropolitan Police raided a flat in north London and arrested six Algerian men whom they claimed were manufacturing ricin as part of a plot for a poison attack on the London Underground. No ricin was recovered as a result of this raid.
In South Carolina
In Washington, D.C. in 2003
Ricin was detected in the mail at the White House in Washington, D.C. in November of 2003. The letter containing it was intercepted at a mail handling facility off the grounds of the White House, and it never reached its intended destination. The letter contained a fine powdery substance that later tested positive for ricin. Investigators said it was low potency and was not considered a health risk. This information was not made public until February 3, 2004, when preliminary tests showed the presence of ricin in an office mailroom of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's office. There were no signs that anyone who was near the contaminated area developed any medical problems. Several Senate office buildings were closed as a precaution.
In Richmond, VA
In January 2006, ricin was found in a home in the suburbs of Richmond, VA. It was in the form of mashed castor beans. Although the suspect, Chetanand Sewraz, was allegedly isolating the toxin to kill his estranged wife, and not for some form of bioterrorism, it nonetheless highlighted the ease with which ricin toxin can be made.
In Austin, Texas
On 23 February 2006, a student in the Moore-Hill dormitory at the University of Texas at Austin found a strange powder in a roll of quarters she was using to do laundry. The University Environmental Health and Safety department immediately sanitized the affected rooms. Lab results (returned the following Friday) indicated ricin. The source of the powder remains unknown, with both the university and Joint Terrorism Task Force investigating. The student and her roommate were being treated for potential exposure to the poison, although neither has exhibited symptoms. After cleansing and reinspection of the affected rooms (completed at 2:30am), the dorm reopened. News reports on 25 February report that further testing has indicated that the substance found is not, in fact, ricin. The identity of the powder has yet to be determined.
- (1929) Ricin was the poison used in the Agatha Christie "Tommy and Tuppence" whodunnit, The House of Lurking Death in a 1929 collection of short stories called Partners in Crime.
- (1962) Ricin was used as the poison of choice of the murderer in the comedy film Kill or Cure.
- (1992) The Penn and Teller book How To Play With Your Food (ISBN 0-679-74311-1) includes a "gimmicks envelope" of small objects related to the tricks inside the book. One of these is a sticker reading "Contains all-natural ricin," intended to be placed on food as a joke. The book explains that ricin is a poison.
- (c. 1993) In Walker, Texas Ranger, CD Parker is killed by Ricin poisoning. His death was originally covered up by his murderers as a heart attack (they had a vendetta against Walker and the rangers that put them away, including CD) until the rangers realized something was going on and an autopsy was performed.
- (c. 2003) The Umbrella-gun pellet assassination incident was featured in Mythbusters.
- (2004) Ricin was one of the poisons used to exact terrorism in the book, "3rd Degree" by James Patterson
- (2004) It is mentioned in the song 'Paracetamoxyfrusebendroneomycin' by the British duo, the Amateur Transplants
- (2007) In Episode 15 of Season 2 in The Unit, Ricin is used in a bomb inside the United Nations building.
- (2007) Ricin-laced hot chocolate was the weapon used to kill a private school history professor in J. D. Robb's novel, "Innocent in Death".
- (2007) Ricin is mentioned as being dispersed in Dirty Bombs across LA in the alternate-reality game "Year Zero," based on the new Nine Inch Nails album of the same name.
- (2007) In the episode Past Imperfect (Season 3 episode 21) of CSI:NY, one murder was committed when a man was shot in the leg with a pellet laced with ricin shot from an air gun.
- (2007) Ricin poisoning plays a role in the Law & Order show 'Fallout,' Season 17, episode 19.
- In the song "Master Thesis" by rap artist Canibus, he states, "Words concocted by the lyrical locksmith, as deadly as 10 droplets of Ricin toxin." Song on YouTube
- In the Season two opener of Dexter (TV Series), entitled "It's Alive!" Dexters victim is a Voodoo high priest who causes his "death curses" to come true by poisoning his victims with ricin.
Notes and references
- Aplin PJ, Eliseo T (1997). "Ingestion of castor oil plant seeds". Med. J. Aust. 167 (5): 260-1. PMID 9315014.
- Wedin GP, Neal JS, Everson GW, Krenzelok EP (1986). "Castor bean poisoning". The American journal of emergency medicine 4 (3): 259-61. PMID 3964368.
- Kopferschmitt J, Flesch F, Lugnier A, Sauder P, Jaeger A, Mantz JM (1983). "Acute voluntary intoxication by ricin". Human toxicology 2 (2): 239-42. PMID 6862467.
- Rauber A, Heard J (1985). "Castor bean toxicity re-examined: a new perspective". Veterinary and human toxicology 27 (6): 498-502. PMID 4082461.
- Lord MJ, Jolliffe NA, Marsden CJ, et al (2003). "Ricin. Mechanisms of cytotoxicity". Toxicological reviews 22 (1): 53-64. PMID 14579547.
- D.M. Thomas, Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Century in His Life, 368-378
- "Preparation of Toxic Ricin", U.S. Patent 3,060,165, assigned to the U.S. Secretary of the Army, inventors: Harry L. Craig, O.H. Alderks, Alsoph H. Corwin, Sally H. Dieke, and Charlotte Karel (granted October 23, 1962)
- Harry L. Craig, O.H. Alderks, Alsoph H. Corwin, Sally H. Dieke, and Charlotte Karel, US Patent 3,060,165, "Preparation of Toxic Ricin", granted October 23, 1962
- "Ricin discovered in dormitory", Austin-American Statesman, 25 February 2006
- "Powdered substance reported by student in Moore-Hill Dormitory", Official UT Austin Press Release, 24 February 2006
- "Tests: No ricin in UT student from Pearland", Houston Chronicle, 25 February 2006
- CSI Series 2 Episode 7
- Hollywood In Memoriam
- ricin information at Department of Health (United Kingdom)
- ricin information at Cornell University
- Castor bean information at Purdue University
- Medical research on ricin at BBC
- Chemical Review at United States Army
- Ricin - Emergency Preparations at CDC
- How to make ricin (for educational purposes only) at TOTSE