Ricin Questions and Answers
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 powder, a mist, 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 very hot or very cold temperatures.
Where Is Ricin Found, and How Is
Castor beans are processed throughout the world to make
castor oil. Ricin is part of the waste “mash” produced when castor oil is made.
Ricin has some potential medical uses, such as bone marrow transplants and
cancer treatment (to kill cancer cells).
How Can You Be Exposed to
It would take an intentional 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 or inhalation), 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 greater amount would likely be needed to kill people if
the ricin was swallowed. 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 set up to inject a poison ricin pellet under
Markov’s skin. Ricin poisoning is not contagious. It cannot be spread from
person to person through casual contact.
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. Eventually this is harmful to the whole body, and death may
occur. Effects of ricin poisoning depend on whether ricin was inhaled, ingested
Signs and Symptoms of Ricin
The major symptoms of ricin poisoning depend on the route of
exposure and the dose received, though many organs may be affected in severe
cases. Initial symptoms of ricin poisoning by inhalation may occur within eight
hours of exposure. Following ingestion of ricin, initial symptoms typically
occur in less than six hours.
Within a few hours of breathing in significant amounts of
ricin, the likely symptoms would be difficulty breathing, fever, cough, nausea
and tightness in the chest. Heavy sweating may follow as well as fluid building
up in the lungs. This would make breathing 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. Finally, low blood pressure and
respiratory failure may occur, leading to death. In cases of known exposure to
ricin, people having respiratory symptoms that started within 12 hours of
inhaling ricin should seek medical care.
If someone swallows a significant amount of ricin, he or she
would develop vomiting and diarrhea that may become bloody. Severe dehydration
may be the result, followed by low blood pressure. Other signs or symptoms may
include hallucinations, seizures and blood in the urine. Within several days,
the person’s liver, spleen and kidneys might stop working, and the person could
Skin and Eye Exposure
Ricin in the powder or mist form can cause redness and pain
of the skin and the eyes.
Death from ricin poisoning could take place within 36-72
hours of exposure, depending on the route of exposure (inhalation, ingestion or
injection) and the dose received. If death has not occurred in three to five
days, the victim usually recovers. Showing these signs and symptoms does not
necessarily mean that a person has been exposed to ricin.
How Ricin Poisoning Is
Because no antidote exists for ricin, 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. Ricin poisoning is treated by giving victims
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 victims were poisoned. Care could include helping the victims breathe,
giving them medications to treat conditions such as seizure and low blood
pressure, flushing their stomachs with activated charcoal (if the ricin has been
recently ingested) or washing out their eyes with water if their eyes are
How Can You Know if You Have Been
Exposed to Ricin?
If we suspect that people have inhaled ricin, a potential
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
How Can You Protect Yourself and
What Can You Do If You Are Exposed to Ricin?
First, get fresh air by leaving the area where the ricin
was released. Moving to an area with fresh air is a good way to reduce the
possibility of death from exposure to ricin.
If the ricin release was outside, move away from the
If the ricin release was indoors, get out of the
If you are near a release of ricin, emergency coordinators
may tell you to either evacuate the area or to shelter-in-place inside a
building to avoid being exposed to the chemical.
If you think you may have been exposed to ricin, you should
remove your clothing, rapidly wash your entire body with soap and water and get
medical care as quickly as possible.
Removing Your Clothing
Quickly take off clothing that may have ricin on it. Any
clothing that has to be pulled over the head should be cut off the body instead
of pulled over the head.
If you are helping other people remove their clothing, try
to avoid touching any contaminated areas, and remove the clothing as quickly as
As quickly as possible, wash any ricin from your skin with
large amounts of soap and water. Washing with soap and water will help protect
you from any chemicals on your body.
If your eyes are burning or your vision is blurred, rinse
your eyes with plain water for 10 to 15 minutes. If you wear contacts, remove
them and put them with the contaminated clothing. Do not put the contacts back
in your eyes (even if they are not disposable contacts). If you wear eyeglasses,
wash them with soap and water. You can put your eyeglasses back on after you
Disposing of Your
After you have washed yourself, place your clothing inside
a plastic bag. Avoid touching contaminated areas of the clothing. If you can’t
avoid touching contaminated areas, or you aren’t sure where the contaminated
areas are, wear rubber gloves, turn the bag inside out and use it to pick up the
clothing, or put the clothing in the bag using tongs, tool handles, sticks or
similar objects. Anything that touches the contaminated clothing should also be
placed in the bag. If you wear contacts, put them in the plastic bag, too.
Seal the bag, and then seal that bag inside another plastic
bag. Disposing of your clothing in this way will help protect you and other
people from any chemicals that might be on your clothes.
When the local or state health department or emergency
personnel arrive, tell them what you did with your clothes. The health
department or emergency personnel will arrange to get rid of it. Do not handle
the plastic bags by yourself.
For more information about cleaning your body and disposing
of your clothes after a chemical release, see “Chemical Agents: Facts About Personal Cleaning and Disposal of Contaminated Clothing”.
If someone has ingested ricin, do not induce vomiting
or give fluids to drink. Seek medical attention right away. Dial 911 and explain
what has happened.
For more information visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.