What is Ricin (RY’-sin)?

The castor beans where ricin is found naturallyThe deadly substance that has recently been found in letters addressed to President Obama and Mississippi Senator Wicker is known as Ricin. This word is plastered on the walls of our media outlets, but what is it exactly?

Ricin is a protein that is extracted from the castor oil plant, whose scientific name is Ricinus communis. It is poisonous if inhaled, injected, or ingested, but the body’s reaction to the substance can be delayed up to a full day after exposure. Symptoms often include nausea, diarrhea, tachycardia, hypotension, and seizures for up to a week. A dose of ricin as small as a few grains of table salt can be fatal to a human adult.

Death usually occurs within 3-5 days of the initial exposure, but survival is possible if treated appropriately. Both the US and UK militaries have developed antidotes, but only minimal testing on humans has been conducted. Long term organ damage is likely in those that survive.

Despite its toxicity, the production of ricin is extremely difficult to limit. The plant can be grown without any special care, which makes it easy for anyone to obtain.

Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian dissident writer, was poisoned and subsequently killed in 1978 by a ricin-filled pellet that was discretely injected into his leg while waiting at a bus stop on his way to work one morning.

The potential of ricin as a biological warfare agent was explored by the United States during World War I. Military officials contemplated using it as a toxic dust, or coating for bullets and shrapnel. The war ended before the U.S. weaponized the chemical.