Frequently (and not so frequently) Asked Questions
BRIEF: I need some information about Ricin...
It is my understanding that the toxins inherint in Ricin can only be transmitted via direct skin contact or when digested. Is this correct? If not, via what other methods would Ricin be toxic? For example, can it contaminate water, would it be an effective aerosol agent? etc.
Ricin is a protein. Specifically, it is a lectin, a class of proteins that love to bind tightly to cell surface glycoproteins. Ricin not only bins to the surfaces of gut mucosa cells, part of the protein chain enters the cell and kills it. I am not really sure that ricin in contact with unbroken healthy skin would do anything harmful, but ingested, it is bad news. There are worse injectable poisons in the castor bean than ricin, but it would kill, nevertheless. Some people are allergic to castor presscake, possibly ricin is one of the antigens. In the 1950's some landscaping workers got sick from handling the presscake from castor oil production as a mulch. I am not sure it would be very water soluble, and it would take a lot to contaminate any meaningful volume of water. Would it be an effective aerosol agent? The Defense Department worries about ricin being effective aerosol agent, but putting up a cloud of this stuff in hopes that it falls on some unsuspecting GI's MRE or Hershey bar seems a bit far fetched to me. There would be adverse affects to breathing the stuff, but to put enough into the air for long enough over a large enough area would just not be practical. And once it fell on the ground or got wet, it is just that much more dirt and mud. Personally, I think killing, be it by bombs, missles, guns, ricin or electric chair are all immoral and ultimately counterproductive to the politcal aims of the terrorists/rebels/ governments/individuals involved. And as far as efficiency and efficacy and accuracy go, poisons and pathogens are even less desirable political tools since they tend to kill the wrong people (any victim is the wrong person, but you know what I mean) and are unpredictable and unreliable to boot.