Ricin is a poison that is extracted from castor beans. It can be in the form of a powder, a mist, or a pellet, or it can be dissolved in liquid. Ricin causes poisoning 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. If enough cells die, this can harm the whole body, and death may occur.
Ricin poisoning does not spread from person to person. Accidental contact with ricin is not likely; it would take a planned act to make purificed ricin and use it to poison people.
Please note: Just because you come into contact with ricin does not mean you will get sick from it.
The major symptoms of ricin poisoning depend on the way someone comes into contact with it and the dose received. Many organs may be affected in severe cases.
The seriousness of poisoning caused by ricin depends on the purity of the ricin used, the amount of ricin a person comes into contact with, the length of time that a person is exposed and the way a person comes into contact with it. If ricin is injected or inhaled (breathed in), as little as 500 micrograms of ricin – an amount that would fit on the head of a pin – could be enough to kill an adult. A greater amount would likely be needed to kill someone if the ricin was put in food or drink. Death from ricin poisoning could occur within 36 to 48 hours after coming in contact with it. If a person has serious symptoms and lives for a few days, death is unlikely.
There is no specific treatment or established cure for ricin poisoning. After poisoning, it is important to get the ricin off or out of the body as quickly as possible. Supportive care in a hospital is the standard treatment. The type of supportive medical care given depends on the way the victims were poisoned (that is, whether the poison was breathed in, eaten, or came into contact with the skin or eyes).
Medical care could include helping victims breathe, giving them intravenous fluids, giving them medications to treat conditions such as seizure and low blood pressure, flushing their stomachs with activated charcoal (a substance that binds with the poison in the stomach) or washing their eyes with water.
Prevention of illness after contact:
There is no vaccine for ricin poisoning.
If you or someone you know is showing symptoms of ricin poisoning, call your health care provider or the Illinois Poison Center right away. The toll-free number for the poison center is 1-800-222-1222.