Ricin Poisoning

What is ricin?

Ricin is a poison that can be made from waste left over from processing castor beans. It can be in the form of a powder, a mist, or a pellet, or dissolved in water or weak acid.

Where is ricin found and how is it used?

Castor beans are processed throughout the world to make castor oil. Ricin has some medical uses, such as bone marrow transplants and cancer treatment (to kill cancer cells).

Ricin may have been used as a chemical warfare agent in the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s. Reports also indicate that ricin has been found in Al Qaeda caves in Afghanistan.

How could people be exposed to ricin?

Unintentional exposure is highly unlikely. It would take a deliberate act to make ricin and use it to poison people. If that were done, people could be exposed by inhaling ricin mist or powder, or by eating food or drinking water that contains ricin. Ricin pellets, or ricin dissolved in a liquid, can also be injected into people's bodies. Ricin poisoning is not contagious-it cannot be spread from person to person through casual contact.

How would we know that people had been exposed?

A possible clue to an attack involving ricin inhalation would be that a number of people who had been close to each other suddenly developed fever, diarrhea, cough, and excess fluid in their lungs. These symptoms could be followed by severe breathing problems and possibly death.

There is no reliable test to confirm ricin exposure.

How does ricin hurt people?

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.

What are the signs and symptoms of ricin exposure?

  • Ingestion: Swallowing a significant amount of ricin results in bleeding of the stomach and intestines, vomiting, and bloody diarrhea. Eventually, the liver, spleen, and kidneys stop working, and death may occur.
  • Inhalation: Coughing, tightness in the chest, difficulty breathing, nausea, and aching muscles occur within a few hours of inhaling significant amounts of ricin. Within the next few hours, the body's airways (such as the lungs) become severely inflamed, excess fluid builds up in the lungs, and breathing becomes even more difficult. Excess fluid in the lungs can be diagnosed by X-ray or by listening to the chest with a stethoscope.
  • Injection: Injection of a lethal amount of ricin causes the muscles and lymph nodes near the injection site to die. Eventually, the liver, kidneys, and spleen stop working, and massive bleeding occurs in the stomach and intestines. Death results from multiple organ failure.

Death from ricin poisoning could occur within 36 to 48 hours of exposure, whether by inhalation, ingestion, or injection. Exposed people who live longer than 5 days without complications will probably survive.

What are the long-term health effects of ricin exposure?

Long-term effects are unknown. No study has been completed on the long-term effects in either animals or humans.

What should people do if they think they've been exposed?

If you believe you have been exposed to ricin, call 911 and wait for emergency help to come. You can also contact the New York City Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222 .

How is ricin poisoning treated?

There is no antidote. Ricin exposure is treated with supportive medical care, such as helping the person breathe, giving intravenous fluids, and giving medications to treat swelling.

Is there anything specific that New Yorkers can do to prepare for a possible bioterrorism event?

The best way for a family to safe is to be as prepared as possible before any disaster strikes. Consistent with long-standing guidelines on disaster preparedness, families should plan to provide for all their necessities for a 3- to 4-day period, in the event that they have to remain inside their home for their safety. They also might consider putting together a family emergency plan, so that all family members (e.g., schoolchildren or homebound relatives) could be cared for in case the main caregivers are unable to return home at their usual times.

The New York City Health Department, along with other government agencies and health institutions, will do everything possible to protect the health of all persons who live, work, or are visiting in New York City. Were a biological release to occur in New York City, the public would be informed immediately through the news media of measures that could be taken to protect their health. If antibiotics or vaccines were recommended, instructions would be provided on where to receive these medications in emergency clinics that would be established by the City in multiple locations throughout the five boroughs.

What if my fears about bioterrorism are having a serious impact on my family and work life?

After the events of September 11, 2001, it is reasonable for individuals to feel anxious about their personal safety. If your fear grows to the point that it stops you from doing things that you would normally do, it might be helpful to talk with a professional counselor. Your healthcare provider can make a referral, or you can call one of the following help lines:

  • 988
  • American Red Cross at (212) 787-1000