U of M chemistry chair explains ricin - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

U of M chemistry chair explains ricin

(WMC-TV) - Two suspicious letters, one sent to President Barack Obama and one to the U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, postmarked out of Memphis tested positive for ricin – a deadly chemical poison. It may have some of you wondering, what is ricin?

"It's a very toxic natural substance," said University of Memphis Chemistry Dept. Chair Abby Parill-Baker.

Ricin is a poison that is present in castor beans, according the New York State Department of Health. It is part of the waste that is produced during the production of castor oil and as such, is one of the most easily produced plant toxins.

The chemical is extremely deadly, and an amount as small as a pinhead, about 500 micrograms, can be enough to kill, according to OSHA.gov.

"The skills to make it are on pat with the same kinds of skills that people use to make illicit narcotics," said Parill-Baker.

Ricin kills by getting inside a person's cells and preventing them from making proteins. Eventually, the cells die causing the person to die. But, the process takes a long time.

How ricin kills depends on how the person was exposed to it. As a terrorism agent, ricin can be made into a powder, pellet, mist, or can be dissolved in water.

If ricin is inhaled, the first symptoms are usually difficulty breathing, fever, cough, nausea, and tightness in the chest, according to the CDC. Death happens as the result of low blood pressure and respiratory failure.

"The lung lining becomes leaky and fluids start to cross that barrier where they're not supposed to be. Coughing would be a mild symptom, but essentially drowning could occur based on your bodily fluid getting into the lungs," said Parill-Baker.

Ingestion of ricin causes the person to develop vomiting, diarrhea, and severe dehydration. Seizures may also develop. And within days, the victim's liver, spleen, or kidneys may stop working causing death.

Symptoms can occur as soon as four hours and as late as 24 hours after exposure. But typically, they occur in less than 10 hours. Death can occur within 36 to 72 hours of exposure.

There is no known antidote for ricin poisoning.

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