How Dangerous is Ricin Poisoning?

Suspected ricin poisoning at the Pentagon| Digital Vision/iStock/Getty Images

Ricin is a naturally grown substance, often found in castor beans, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Although naturally occurring, it may be created from the waste material left over when making castor oil. Ricin is also used experimentally to eradicate cancer cells too.

While ricin is a naturally growing substance, it can be used as a biological weapon, according to Global Security.org. The biological material can be made inexpensively and can be made in large quantities. The CDC classifies ricin as, “One of the most toxic biological agents known—a Category B bioterrorism agent and a Schedule number 1 chemical warfare agent.”

What does ricin look like, how can you protect yourself and what do you do if you are exposed to ricin poisoning?

What is ricin and how does it work?

Ricin likely presents as a white, powdery substance but can also be in a mist form, a pellet, dissolved in water or weak acid, according to the CDC. While potent under normal conditions, ricin may be inactivated by heat at 176 degrees Fahrenheit or above.

When inhaled, ingested or injected, ricin invades the body and prevents cells from making vital proteins, according to the CDC. Without these proteins, cells die and ultimately the person may also die.

Symptoms of ricin poisoning

Early symptoms through inhalation may be present as early as four to hours post exposure, according to the CDC. But symptoms may not appear for as long as 24 hours. If ingested, early symptoms may show up in less than 10 hours.

If you inhale ricin, symptoms include respiratory distress and lung issues. This includes coughing, nausea, fever and chest tightness. Low blood pressure and respiratory failure may ultimately occur. If you ingest ricin, you may experience gastronomical symptoms. This includes vomiting and diarrhea, followed by seizures and organ failure.  Exposure to the skin is less lethal but if you put exposed skin in your mouth you may ingest it. Death from ricin poisoning could occur within 36 to 72 hours of exposure.

How is ricin transmitted?

The substance may be present on surfaces or clothing, according to the CDC. While ricin may cling to the skin, no known case of person to person transmission exists. However, if you can expose another person by touching them if you have ricin on your skin. Also, it is transmitted in the air, released in a powder and dispersed in particles with diameters smaller than 10 µm. Other exposure methods include ingestion, injection, dermal, and ocular contact.

If you suspect you’ve been poisoned…

The CDC recommends getting fresh air immediately and moving away from where the poison may have been released. You should also remove your clothing and wash immediately. Avoid recontaminating yourself by touching exposed clothing, but use a stick to place clothing in a sealed bag. If you’ve ingested ricin, do not induce vomiting or drink anything.

Contact the regional poison control center immediately: 1-800-222-1222. And seek medical attention immediately or call 911.

Treatment for ricin poisoning

No vaccine or specific medical treatment for ricin exists, so seeking medical care immediately is your best path for survival. Physicians can treat and mitigate symptoms depending on the kind of exposure. Supportive care could include IV fluids, help with breathing, medications to help low blood pressure and seizures. Plus a stomach flush using activated charcoal or an eye wash if eyes were exposed.

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