Unlike the illnesses so far listed, ricin is a toxin not a disease. Though it’s not something that you will likely come across in any natural situation, it is a very likely candidate for bio-terrorism. And so it’s been included.
Mortality rate: not known
“Incubation” period: symptoms appear within hours, death can occur within 3 days
Ricin is a kind of protein that is found naturally in the beans of the castor oil plant. It is extremely toxic to humans, and you can be effected if it’s ingested, inhaled or injected. Absorption through the skin is a poor way to administer it, and it seldom has any effect. When inhaled it would only take an amount like a grain or two of salt to kill an adult.
Though various methods have been used to kill people with ricin over the years, a mass bio-terrorism attack will almost certainly be an air-borne delivery of a powder (i.e inhalation exposure). The rest of this discussion of ricin will be based on this scenario.
History of Ricin as a Weapon
There were ricin projects in both WWI and WWII in the United States, though neither one came to pass. During the Cold War years, there were cases of KGB agents using tiny metal pellets laced with ricin to inject the toxin into assassination targets.
In 2002, an Iraqi militant group was reportedly doing tests with ricin though very little was discovered. A larger plot was uncovered in 2003 where a group of Algerians were planning on making ricin to attack the London Underground. That same year, ricin-tainted letters were found in the U.S postal system bound for the White House. Even as recently as 2013, ricin was used in political attacks when letters laced with the toxin where mailed to the mayor of New York City and other notable political figures. No one died in this particular incident.
Signs and Symptoms
The first symptoms of air-borne ricin exposure are painful redness of the skin and serious eye irritation. Within a few hours, there will be difficulty breathing and a persistent cough. Fever and nausea can also develop but it’s the breathing problems that are the most severe. Fluid will start to build up in the lungs, which can quickly lead to complete respiratory failure.
There is no treatment for ricin poisoning, though it is not as deadly as TV makes you believe. Though it can kill quickly, it’s certainly possible to survive. Unfortunately there are no real figures about its lethality in an attack scenario
If you are aware of a ricin attack, immediately remove your clothing and wash any remaining dust from you skin. Flush out your eyes as well. Avoid breathing in dust or powder while you’re doing all of this. If you’re trying to help another person, wear a good mask and protect your face.
Once the symptoms begin, there is little you can do though sometimes supplementary oxygen can help someone survive the worst it.
It’s difficult to talk about prevention since this isn’t a disease you can try to avoid catching. There really is very little you can do, other than stay away from major cities that might be a terrorist target. There is currently no vaccine for ricin exposure though there have been some studies to create one. Even if it did exist, it wouldn’t likely be available to the general public.
Because ricin can be extracted with minimal expertise from an easily obtainable plant, anyone can potentially have access to this toxin. That makes it very appealing as a weapon, especially with smaller groups that have limited resources. Though there have not been any successful mass attacks with ricin, the threat is very real.