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All You Need to Know About Ricin

Updated on July 15, 2016
Castor Oil Plant, From Which Ricin is Produced
Castor Oil Plant, From Which Ricin is Produced | Source

What is the source of ricin?

Ricin is a poison derived from seeds of the castor bean plant. The poison is extracted from the finely ground up "mash" that is left over after extracting the castor oil from the beans. The poison must be chemically extracted and purified from the mash to become the highly lethal poison we know as ricin. It is an even more deadly poison when it is in an aerosol form.

Since ancient times, the castor bean plant and its oils have been used as a lubricant and a digestive aid. Today castor oil is a common compound in many cosmetics and other products, and it is still marketed as a laxative. Castor oil is also used for treating certain neurological conditions, though the studies of the oils efficacy are not conclusive.

Will the castor bean kill me?

Although it is true that an amount of ricin the size of a pin head can kill you, you will not get ricin poisoning from touching or handling castor beans.

Even eating the castor bean is very unlikely to kill you. It is difficult, but not impossible, for the body to extract ricin from the castor bean during digestion. An unchewed bean is likely to pass through a person's digestive system whole.

Each bean must be chewed thoroughly in order for the ricin to be released. The chewed beans may release the ricin which may cause localized damage to the mucosa of the digestive tract, but it is has a fatality rate of less than 2%.

Castor bean plants are grown for their beauty as well as their usefulness.
Castor bean plants are grown for their beauty as well as their usefulness. | Source

Technical information about ricin

Ricin is a naturally occurring protein which makes up between 1-5 % of the castor bean's weight. When ricin enters the human body, it binds itself to receptors on the cell walls. The ricin then enters the cell itself, where its presence stops the production of the cell's own proteins, resulting in cell death. A technical explanation of the process can be read at Ricin Toxin.

What are the symptoms of oral ricin poisoning?

The number of beans that need to be eaten to cause death is estimated between 10 - 24 beans. The death rate is less than 2%, and determined by how well that person's body breaks down the bean before elimination through defecation.

Ricin has also been injected into humans resulting in their death, The symptoms of poisoning by injection are similar to oral poisoning symptoms.

The initial symptoms of oral ricin poisoning are:

  • Nausea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting

These symptoms occur over a period of a few hours after ingestion.

Castor oil plant seeds which produce ricin
Castor oil plant seeds which produce ricin | Source

Symptoms of oral poisoning which occur within 24 hours may be:

  • Diarrhea
  • Hemorrhaging from the anus
  • Pupil dilation
  • Muscle and abdominal cramps
  • No urine output
  • Excessive thirst
  • Headache
  • Shock

If a fatal dose of ricin has been ingested, death will occur within four days as a result of liver, kidney, and other organ failure.

What happens when ricin poison is inhaled?

Within eight hours of inhaling chemical grade ricin the initial symptoms may be:

  • Cough
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Itching of the eyes
  • High fever
  • Nausea
  • Tightness in the chest

10 to 20 hours after inhalation the symptoms may be:

  • Excessive sweating
  • Fluid in the lungs
  • Rapid heart beat

Symptoms which may lead to death occur with 36 to 48 hours. The final symptoms may include:

  • Respiratory failure
  • Low blood pressure
  • Organ failure
  • Severe pulmonary edema

Do you grow castor beans?

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Is there treatment available for ricin poisoning?

There are currently no anti-toxins available to treat ricin poisoning. Medical treatment is limited to supportive medical care such as IV fluids, assistance in breathing, and medication to control cramps and low blood pressure.

Currently, there are no scientific tests to identify if a person has been poisoned with ricin.

Scientists are currently working on an active vaccine that will prevent ricin poisoning.

Ricin and biological warfare

The United States explored ways to use ricin as a weapon during WW I. The testing involved coating bullets with the substance, and dispersing ricin in a dust cloud.

During World War II, both Canada and the US developed ways to deliver ricin through cluster bombs. The studies were ended when it was found that this method of poisoning was more expensive then other available biological and chemical weapons.

The Soviet Union, Iraq, and Afghanistan have been suspected of utilizing ricin as a biological weapon.

Bulgarian writer and dissident Georgi Markov
Bulgarian writer and dissident Georgi Markov | Source

Ricin used for assassination and terrorism

It has been thought ricin was used to assassinate Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian writer who had defected to the west. It is speculated he was injected with a ricin pellet via a specially constructed umbrella.

Vladimir Kostov was another Bulgarian who was a victim of a suspected assassination attempt by the Bulgarian Secret Police. He was shot in the back with a bullet coated with ricin, but survived.

Numerous small groups around the world have used or attempted to use ricin as a mechanism of terror, though it is not an effective way to kill large numbers of people.

In 2013, envelopes containing a crude, non-weaponized form of ricin were mailed to President Obama and two other political figures, but the ricin was detected before reaching the intended targets. A Mississippi state man has been arrested and charged.

Which is scarier and more deadly, anthrax or ricin?

Though both are highly lethal to humans, anthrax is a better weapon of terror. Anthrax is a bacterium that is highly contagious. It can infect people who were not initially exposed to the toxin, but who later come into contact with the infected people.

To be affected by ricin, you must be exposed directly to it. The exposed people cannot infect others after they have been "decontaminated".

Why does ricin get bad press?


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