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Ricin Fact Sheet

What is ricin?

Is ricin fatal?

How do I protect myself and others from exposure to ricin?

How is exposure to ricin treated?

What are the signs and symptoms of exposure to ricin?

What are the long term effect of exposure to ricin?

How do I determine if I was exposed to ricin?

What do I do if I suspect I was exposed to ricin?

Is ricin contagious?

Is there a vaccine or antidote for exposure to ricin?

How does exposure to ricin occur?

Where is ricin found?

How is ricin used?

How does ricin work?

What is the likelihood that ricin could be used?

What other risks are there for exposure to ricin?

Are there any historical uses or accidents involving ricin?

How Can People Get More Information About Ricin?

What is ricin?

  • Ricin is a poison that can be made from the waste left over from processing castor beans.
  • It can be in the form of a powder, a mist, or a pellet, or it can be dissolved in water or weak acid.
  • It is a stable substance. For example, it is not affected much by extreme conditions such as very hot or very cold temperatures.
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Is ricin fatal?

Yes, several deaths have resulted after a victim was injected with ricin. People also have been poisoned with ricin after eating castor beans.  However, most cases of eating castor beans do not result in poisoning, because it is difficult to release the ricin from castor beans. Also, ricin is not as well absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract when compared to injection or inhalation.

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How do I protect myself and others from exposure to ricin?

Because no antidote exists, the most important factor is avoiding ricin exposure in the first place. If exposure cannot be avoided, the most important factor is then getting the ricin off or out of the body as quickly as possible.

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How is exposure to ricin treated?

No antidote exists for ricin. Ricin poisoning is treated by giving the victim supportive medical care to minimize the effects of the poisoning. The types of supportive medical care would depend on several factors, such as the route by which the victim was poisoned (that is, by inhalation, ingestion, or injection). Care could include such measures as helping the victim breathe and giving him or her intravenous fluids and medications to treat swelling.

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What are the signs and symptoms of exposure to ricin?

  • Inhalation: Within a few hours of inhaling significant amounts of ricin, the likely symptoms would be coughing, tightness in the chest, difficulty breathing, nausea, and aching muscles. Within the next few hours, the body's airways (such as lungs) would become severely inflamed (swollen and hot), excess fluid would build up in the lungs, breathing would become even more difficult, and the skin might turn blue. Excess fluid in the lungs would be diagnosed by x-ray or by listening to the chest with a stethoscope.
  • Ingestion: If someone swallows a significant amount of ricin, he or she would have internal bleeding of the stomach and intestines that would lead to vomiting and bloody diarrhea. Eventually, the person's liver, spleen, and kidneys might stop working, and the person could die.
  • Injection: Injection of a lethal amount of ricin at first would cause the muscles and lymph nodes near the injection site to die. Eventually, the liver, kidneys, and spleen would stop working, and the person would have massive bleeding from the stomach and intestines. The person would die from multiple organ failure.
  • Death from ricin poisoning could take place within 36 to 48 hours of exposure, whether by injection, ingestion, or inhalation. If the person lives longer than 5 days without complications, he or she will probably not die.
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What are the long term effect of exposure to ricin?

No long-term direct effects are known to exist from ricin exposure that did not result in symptoms. Following severe ricin poisoning, the damage done to vital organs may be permanent or have lasting effects.

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How do I determine if I was exposed to ricin?

  • If we suspect that people have inhaled ricin, a possible clue would be that a large number of people who had been close to each other suddenly developed fever, cough, and excess fluid in their lungs. These symptoms could be followed by severe breathing problems and possibly death.
  • No widely available, reliable test exists to confirm that a person has been exposed to ricin.
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What do I do if I suspect I was exposed to ricin?

Unintentional ricin poisoning is highly unlikely. CDC has no reports of intentional ricin poisoning. If people think they might have been exposed to ricin, however, they should contact the regional poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.

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Is ricin contagious?

Ricin poisoning is not contagious. It cannot be spread from person to person through casual contact.

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Is there a vaccine or antidote for exposure to ricin?

No antidote exists for ricin.

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How does exposure to ricin occur?

  • It would take a deliberate act to make ricin and use it to poison people. Accidental exposure to ricin is highly unlikely.
  • People can breathe in ricin mist or powder and be poisoned.
  • Ricin can also get into water or food and then be swallowed.
  • Pellets of ricin, or ricin dissolved in a liquid, can be injected into people's bodies.
  • Depending on the route of exposure (such as injection), as little as 500 micrograms of ricin could be enough to kill an adult. A 500-microgram dose of ricin would be about the size of the head of a pin. A much greater amount would be needed to kill people if the ricin were inhaled (breathed in) or swallowed.
  • Ricin poisoning is not contagious. It cannot be spread from person to person through casual contact.
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Where is ricin found?

Castor beans are processed throughout the world to make castor oil. Ricin is part of the waste “mash” produced when castor oil is made. Amateurs can make ricin from castor beans.

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How is ricin used?

Ricin has some potential medical uses, such as bone marrow transplants and cancer treatment (to kill cancer cells).

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How does ricin work?

  • Ricin works by getting inside the cells of a person's body and preventing the cells from making the proteins they need. Without the proteins, cells die, and eventually the whole body can shut down and die.
  • Specific effects of ricin poisoning depend on whether ricin was inhaled, swallowed, or injected.
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What is the likelihood that ricin could be used?

Ricin has been used in the past and may also be used again.

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What other risks are there for exposure to ricin?

Although it is unknown whether certain populations such as children, pregnant women, the elderly, people who are immunocompromised, or people with respiratory or gastrointestinal (GI) tract illnesses are at higher risk, the possibility of higher risk does exist. People who have existing illnesses of the respiratory or GI tract may have pre-existing tissue irritation or damage as a result of their illness. If this damaged or irritated tissue is exposed to ricin, the result may be further injury and greater absorption of the ricin toxin.

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Are there any historical uses or accidents involving ricin?

  • In 1978, Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian writer and journalist who was living in London, died after he was attacked by a man with an umbrella. The umbrella had been rigged to inject a poison ricin pellet under Markov's skin.
  • Some reports have indicated that ricin may have been used in the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s and that quantities of ricin were found in Al Qaeda caves in Afghanistan.
  • In February 2004, ricin was found in the Dirksen Senate office building.
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How Can People Get More Information About Ricin?

They can contact one of the following:

Regional poison control center (1-800-222-1222)

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Public Response Hotline (CDC)

English (888) 246-2675

Español (888) 246-2857

TTY (866) 874-2646

 

Emergency Preparedness and Response Web site

E-mail inquiries: cdcresponse@ashastd.org

Mail inquiries:
Public Inquiry c/o BPRP
Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Planning
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Mailstop C-18
1600 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30333

 

Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) (1-888-422-8737)

E-mail inquiries: atsdric@cdc.gov

Mail inquiries:
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Division of Toxicology
1600 Clifton Road NE, Mailstop E-29
Atlanta, GA 30333

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