What Is It?
Produced using ordinary kitchen equipment, ricin is a protein toxin which acts as a cellular poison. It can be readily produced from castor beans, which are ubiquitous throughout the world. Waste from the commercial production of castor oil contains 5 percent ricin. Ricin does not, in general, pose a risk of secondary aerosolization, meaning a victim can't inadvertently poison someone else through second-hand transmission.
Experts say that ricin is effective against small numbers of victims but difficult to use in a large-scale terror attack. The deadly toxin can be inhaled, ingested or injected. The CDC classifies ricin as a "Category B" biological agent, which means it is "relatively easy to disseminate" and has "low mortality rates."
How Is It Spread?
Ricin acts as a poison, when ingested through of water or food. It can also harm people through inoculation via ricin-laced projectiles, or aerosolization of liquid ricin or powder.
What Are the Symptoms of Exposure?
Naturally-occurring cases of ricin intoxication involve ingestion of castor beans, and are marked by severe gastrointestinal symptoms, vascular collapse, and death.
When used as an aerosol, cell death in lung tissue and pulmonary capillaries would lead to pulmonary edema and hypoxic respiratory failure. When inhaled this way, ricin would likely produce symptoms within eight hours. These would include fever, cough, dyspnea, nausea and chest tightness, and are followed by profuse sweating, the development of pulmonary edema, cyanosis, hypotension, and finally respiratory failure and circulatory collapse. Death would likely occur in 36-72 hours, depending on the dose received.
How Is It Treated?
No specific treatment exists, and care is strictly supportive. In cases of gastrointestinal exposure, gut decontamination via lavage - washing out of an organ, activated charcoal, and cathartics is warranted. Ricin may be inactivated with 0.5 percent hypochlorite. Decontamination may not be as critical as with certain other biological and chemical agents.
Who Has It/Where Can It Be Found?
British anti-terror squads seized a small amount of ricin in early January 2003 in northern London and arrested seven men. Recipes to make ricin were reportedly found in Al Qaeda hideouts in Kabul, Afghanistan in November 2001, and traces of the substance were found at suspected Al Qaeda biological weapons sites. Some U.S. supremacist groups have reportedly stockpiled the agent.
Two members of an American extremist group, a drug group, and a private individual have already shown that a very small group of terrorists can successfully produce Ricin.
United Nations weapons inspectors who left Iraq in 1998 listed ricin among the poisons they believed Saddam Hussein produced.