Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=220259
Story Retrieval Date: 12/11/2013 10:00:39 PM CST
U.S Department of Agriculture
Despite numerous media claims Wednesday that letters and packages sent to public figures were laced with deadly ricin, some experts remain skeptical.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate evacuated after the claims were reported.
The initial screening for toxins takes only a few minutes, but the confirmation test takes 24-48 hours, according to Arch Carson, associate professor of medical toxicology at the University of Texas School of Public Health.
He said it’s a complex, multi-step process, and he himself was surprised at how quickly the FBI reported the results.
“There are a lot of false positives. We heard there were mailings, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they contain ricin until the confirmation test returns,” Carson said.
It’s no wonder there’s such media hype. Ricin has a fantastic history, according to Deborah Blum, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of “The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York.”
“We know that this is a dangerous poison, we know it’s been mailed to people before and we have a standard test,” Blum said. “That’s why we got a really fast ‘Yes, this is ricin,’ response.”
Ricin gained widespread attention in 1978 when Georgi Markov was stabbed with an umbrella, which shot a ricin pellet into his leg. Markov was dead four days later. The Emmy Award-winning AMC series “Breaking Bad” featured ricin in the main plot last season.
Blum called ricin a “perfect poison,” in that the amount required to kill a person is so tiny, about 1/250 of a standard aspirin tablet, Blum said.
The U.S. considered using ricin as a possible bioterrorism weapon during WWI and WWII, Blum also said.
What makes ricin such a feared bioterror agent is the ease at which it can be purified from the waste of castor oil, made from castor bean plants, which are readily found in nature.
“Ricin is interesting because it is actually not that poisonous to cows, for instance, but to horses it is. It is targeting, for reasons we don’t understand, certain large mammals,” Blum said.
It is extremely deadly for humans. Research has shown there are no known antidotes for the toxin.
“When you put it in an envelope it’s really wicked because if I open it and those grains fly up and I inhale some of it, it can be very dangerous stuff,” Blum said.
It’s also 100 times more poisonous if inhaled than if swallowed.
“It absorbs differently through tissues and lungs than in the gut,” Blum said. “A lot goes on to break things down in the stomach, whereas your lungs have a system that isn’t as well-guarded.”
Because the chemicals in ricin are routinely screened for, she said the odds of a letter laced with ricin reaching its intended recipient are slim.
“If you mail it, you’re making an ‘I hate you’ statement,” Blum said. “It’s unlikely to actually reach target, but likely to really freak people out.”
Despite widespread fear, Gloria Melendez, supervisor at the U.S. Post Office at the intersection of Clark and Adams in Chicago, isn’t freaked out at all.
“You just have to take one day at a time,” Melendez said.