Just days after explosions rocked the finish of the Boston Marathon, a
letter sent to President Obama this week has tested positive for ricin, a toxin
historically used as a biological weapon in some parts of the world. Law
enforcement officials don’t know if there is any connection to the marathon
bombings, but the packages have renewed interest in this biological terror
Q. What is ricin?
A. Ricin is a protein that that can be extracted from the beans of the
castor plant, which grows throughout the world including the southwestern
United States. Ricin is a byproduct of castor oil production: When castor beans
are crushed, they form a pulp from which castor oil is extracted, and ricin is
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) classifies ricin
as a Category B threat agent, the second highest priority agents. The CDC says
these Category B agents are moderately easy to disseminate, result in moderate
morbidity rates and low mortality rates, and require specific enhancements of
CDC's diagnostic capacity and enhanced disease surveillance.
Q. How does ricin affect the human body?
A. Ricin has the ability to inhibit protein synthesis. It can be
ingested, injected or inhaled, the latter being the most lethal form. It is not
contagious and cannot be spread from person to person.
Q. What are the symptoms of ricin poisoning?
A. If significant amounts are inhaled, ricin can cause respiratory
distress, fever, cough, nausea, and tightness in the chest. Patients may
experience heavy sweating and fluid in the lungs, resulting in a blue or purple
discoloration of the skin. Low blood pressure and respiratory failure may
occur, leading to death. Patients experiencing symptoms after exposure to ricin
should seek medical attention.
For media seeking more
information about ricin, please call Molly Bowen at the Center
for Biosecurity of UPMC at 443-573-3304. Experts at the center include Eric
Toner, M.D., an internist and emergency physician whose primary areas of interest
are healthcare preparedness for catastrophic events, pandemic influenza
response and medical response to bioterrorism. Amesh Adalja, M.D., F.A.C.P., is board certified in internal medicine, emergency medicine, infectious diseases and critical care medicine and also has extensive experience in terrorism and disaster preparedness.