A bioterror agent with few real victims
A U.S. Capitol Police hazmat vehicle is parked at a mail processing facility for Congressional mail in Prince George's County where a letter addressed to Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., tested positive for ricin, Tuesday, April 16, 2013, in Hyattsville, Md. An envelope addressed Wicker tested positive Tuesday for ricin, a potentially fatal poison, congressional officials said, heightening concerns about terrorism a day after a bombing killed three and left more than 170 injured at the Boston Marathon. (AP Photo/Molly Riley)
Ever since the anthrax and terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the poison ricin has at times been lumped in with other bioterrorism agents because it comes from a relatively common plant and seems easy to make.
But the reality is ricin has created far more scares than victims and is more a targeted poison – an assassin’s tool – than something to attack lots of people.
Preliminary tests of a suspicious substance in a letter addressed to President Obama indicates ricin, the FBI said yesterday. That comes after an envelope addressed to Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, tested positive Tuesday for ricin after being received at a mail processing plant in Maryland. In 2004, ricin was discovered in the sorting area of a mail room in a Senate office building.
Ricin is derived from the castor plant that makes castor oil. What makes it scary is that there is no antidote and it is at its deadliest when inhaled. It is not contagious.
Of all the biological and chemical terror agents, “it is one of the least significant; it is a poison,” said University of Maryland bioterrorism expert Milt Leitenberg.
Leitenberg said he was hard pressed to remember any case when an initial chemical test that showed the presence of ricin actually turned out to be ricin. Nearly every time it is a false alarm. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there’s a rapid detection test for ricin that takes 6 to 8 hours, but the more complete test – the ricin toxin test – takes about 48 hours to perform and the availability of cultured cells to do the test could be a problem getting it done that fast. That second test is “considered the best test for determining the presence of ricin,” the CDC said in a fact sheet on ricin.
Still, a draft of a 2010 Homeland Security Department handbook lists only one person killed by ricin. And that was a political assassination, in 1978, of a Bulgarian dissident who was injected – via specialized secret-agent style umbrella – with a ricin pellet. The CDC said others have been killed, but also by injection.