On Tuesday, letters addressed to President Barack Obama and Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker were intercepted at offsite mailrooms and were found to test positive for traces of ricin. The poison is lethal in tiny quantities if inhaled or ingested. The FBI announced Wednesday that it had arrested a Mississippi man, Paul Kevin Curtis, for sending the ricin-laced letters. Unlike Bruce Ivins, the military scientist behind the 2001 anthrax attacks, Curtis doesn’t work in biosecurity. How hard is it to make ricin?
Not hard at all. There’s no shortage of ricin recipes online, and you don’t have to dig too deeply to find them—a quick Google search will pull up dubious-looking forums with detailed (and mostly accurate) instructions on how to make ricin at home. Ricin is found naturally in castor beans, and the toxin can be extracted from the pulp left over after the oil has been squeezed out. The general procedure involves first removing or softening the outer coat of the castor beans (some recipes suggest soaking them) and cooking the beans. Next, the beans are mashed and filtered. Then solvents are added to extract the ricin from the solution … and congratulations, you’ve just made ricin.
The entire process can be done in your kitchen, with everyday materials such as coffee filters, mason jars, and solvents found at hardware stores. Castor bean seeds are widely available online. The plant grows wild all over the United States and is also grown in gardens. Not only is it easy to obtain a recipe for ricin, it’s also easy to obtain all the needed ingredients and materials to make it.
Ricin comes in several forms, including powder, mist, and pellets. It can also be dissolved in water. And the tiniest amount is all that’s needed to be fatal. Michael P. Allswede, a toxicologist at the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, told the New York Times in 2006 that a “speck of pure ricin the size of a grain of salt is enough to kill if it is injected or swallowed.” Exposure is often fatal and occurs within days. Most notably, in 1978, Bulgarian journalist Georgi Markov died from ricin poisoning after another man (possibly a KGB agent) used an umbrella to shoot the toxin into his leg. The first symptoms of ingested ricin include nausea and vomiting, which rapidly progress to kidney and liver failure. The first symptoms of inhaling ricin include difficulty breathing, chest tightness, and a cough, and rapidly progress to respiratory failure. There is no antidote for ricin.
Pure ricin is highly dangerous. But home-brewed ricin might not be as pure—and therefore less harmful. Someone without technical training could make ricin at home, but it’s much harder to effectively purify and concentrate ricin without more knowledge. To purify ricin, there are “special, technically difficult processes that might not be readily available,” notes the CDC. Bottom line: High-quality ricin is hard to make, and it’s difficult to produce a powder form that is easy to inhale. That doesn’t stop people from trying. In 2008, Roger von Bergendorff was found comatose in his Las Vegas hotel room after he had accidentally inhaled ricin he had produced. After he woke up from his coma, he was sentenced to three years in prison.
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Explainer thanks Eric Toner of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and David Wunschel of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.