Frequently (and not so frequently) Asked Questions
BRIEF: Could you answer some questions about powdered Ricin for me?
I have read some literature on the web regarding RICIN. My husband is a police officer and we are now hearing warnings about how people can be killed by touching RICIN in a powder form. This can be particularly dangerous for law enforcement personnel. 1. Is the above statement true? I am having trouble locating literature to confirm or contradict the statement. 2. If it is true was are the chances for recovery, if any, once you have come in contact with RICIN powder? 3. What should we watch for and at what point to we seek medical treatment?
I seriously doubt that ricin or abrin can penetrate unbroken skin to cause toxic symptoms. When ingested, however, they are deadly. Symptoms of poisoning by ingestion start with vomiting, nausea and diarrhea. Then the diarrhea turns bloody, the vomiting continues and the patient becomes dehydrated, jaundiced and sometimes, dies. Death may not occur for 6-8 days. If injected, these toxins are even more deadly (abrin is lethal at 0. 1microgram per kilogram body weight). The risk of touching the powders would be that the person might then wipe their eye, pick their nose, grab some potato chips or otherwise transfer a bit of these unbelievably toxic compounds to their GI tract or other soft tissues where they can grab hold and enter the body's cells. Additional risks are that there could be other toxins unrelated to ricin, such as cyanide, present in such a powder that could well be absorbed through moist skin, especially if the sweat is slightly acid. The way ricin and other lectins work is that one half of the ricin molecule (B protein chain) grabs on to the cell surface very tightly, which allows the other half (A protein chain) to enter the cell and wreck the protein-making machinery (it disaggregates the ribosomes), killing the cell. One molecule is thought to be able to kill one cell, although if ricin is present in detectable amounts, there are far more than one molecule available per cell to do the job. Once the cells lining the gut are destroyed, the next layer is attacked, and the toxin may enter the body itself. The outer layer of skin is thick and made up of dead cells anyway, so although I would not encourage anyone to touch any unknown powder, I am extremely skeptical that death could result from this alone. But you won't catch me near the stuff without gloves and a mask. People have recovered from ingesting castor bean seeds. As a matter of fact, 90% of victims ingesting a "lethal" dose of 6-20 seeds recover. On the other hand, children have been killed by 1 or 2 seeds. It is thought that the amount of chewing and exposure of the seeds' interior to the digestive tract may be a factor. people have passed whole, unscratched seeds without apparent ill effect.