Ricin is back in the news with reports that envelopes suspected of containing the poison were sent to the White House and top defense officials.
A white, powdery substance sent Tuesday to the Houston campaign headquarters of Sen. Ted Cruz, however, turned out to be a false alarm.
A letter addressed to President Donald Trump at the White House was intercepted by the Secret Service, authorities said. Letters to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Navy Admiral John Richardson were seized at a Defense Department mail facility before reaching their targets, the Pentagon said.
All the envelopes were being tested further to confirm that ricin was involved. The Houston Fire Department evacuated the floor in a Texas high-rise where Cruz’s officers are located but later said tests on the powdery substance there were negative for the poison.
Weaponizing ricin to attack politicians is not new. In 2014, actress Shannon Guess Richardson was sentenced to 18 years in prison for sending ricin-tainted letters to then-President Barack Obama and then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
What is ricin?
Ricin is a poison from the husks castor beans, which are the seeds from the castor oil plant commonly found in nature. Castor oil, a strong laxative, is made by removing the husks and crushing the seeds, which have several other medicinal and manufacturing uses as well. Ricin is part of the waste produced when these products are made.
How deadly is ricin?
Weapons-grade ricin is produced in tiny particles that can be inhaled. The smaller the particles the more deadly the poison. It can be in the form of a powder, a mist or a pellet, or it can be dissolved in water or weak acid. Unintentional exposure to ricin is highly unlikely, but chewing and swallowing castor beans can release ricin capable of causing injury, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.
How does ricin kill?
Ricin breaches human cells, preventing them from making the proteins they need. Without the proteins, cells die. Eventually this debilitates the entire body, and death may occur.
How are castor seeds turned into weapons-grade ricin?
It would take a “deliberate act” to make ricin that poisons people, the CDC says. If made into a partially purified material or refined into a terrorist or warfare agent, ricin could be used to expose people through the air, food or water.
How contagious is a ricin-induced illness?
Ricin poisoning is not contagious. Ricin-associated illness cannot be spread from person to person through casual contact. However, if you come into contact with someone who has ricin on their body or clothes, you could become exposed to it.
Has ricin actually been used as a weapon?
The U.S. military experimented with using ricin as a possible warfare agent as far back as World War II. Ricin has been linked to the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s and more recently to terrorist organizations.
Are there any positive uses for ricin?
Ricin has been used experimentally in medicine to kill cancer cells.
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