What is ricin?

A letter handler's scare: ricin
A suspicious white powder is harvested for testing. (April 17, 2013 | KOIN 6 News)

PORTLAND, Ore. — The poison ricin was found inside two letters discovered nationally this week: one to the president and the other to a senator.

So what is ricin? How does it kill and is it always deadly?

Ricin is a naturally occurring toxin found in castor oil plants — popular with gardeners and common in the southeastern part of the United States.

The ricin is found in the beans of the plant. It’s extracted by drying the beans out, and grinding the beans down into a powder.

“The toxin itself is extremely potent,” OHSU Toxicology Researcher Fred Berman told KOIN 6 News. “But getting it into a form where it can kill you is not a trivial matter.”

Ricin can be fatal if injected or inhaled.

If the powder is inhaled deeply, it only takes the equivalent of a few grains to have an effect. Typical symptoms include nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pain.

A deadly dose can kill within a few days.

Although there’s no antidote, poison control experts say there is effective treatment when combined with active monitoring.

“We’d put them in the ICU,” said Dr. Zane Horowitz at the Oregon Poison Center. “We’d get chest X-rays, we’d watch their oxygenation in their body, we would watch their blood counts, we’d look for signs of low blood pressure.”

Ricin poisoning is not contagious.

So while ricin is a threat, researchers and doctors at OHSU hospital in southwest Portland said that, in most cases, it’s not a deadly one.

Related stories:


Why would someone bent on terror use ricin? The answer in Ken Boddie’s video report:

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