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What is ricin?

Ricin is a toxin found in castor beans. Castor beans are grown worldwide, including in Canada . The beans are processed to form castor oil, formerly used as a laxative and now used in industry as a lubricant. Waste from castor oil production contains up to 5% ricin. Ricin is being investigated as a treatment for cancer.

How can ricin poisoning occur?

Ricin is a white powder that can be dissolved in water. It may be used to:

  • Contaminate water or food
  • Form a powder or mist that can be breathed in
  • Form pellets or liquid that can be injected into the body

Ricin poisoning can also occur following accidental ingestion of castor beans.

Ricin poisoning is not contagious and does not spread from person to person.

Accidental exposure to ricin is unlikely. If exposure does occur, it is likely that the ricin was deliberately produced and used to poison people. In 1978, Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian journalist living in London , was assassinated when a ricin pellet was injected into him. In February 2004, ricin was found in the Senate mail room on Capitol Hill in Washington , D.C. No one became ill from that exposure.

Is there any indication that ricin might be used by terrorists in Canada ?

There is no known risk of deliberate ricin poisoning in Canada at this time.

What are the symptoms of ricin exposure?

Symptoms depend on the route of exposure to ricin and the amount of ricin received.

If ricin is ingested (eaten), symptoms occur within 2-6 hours and include nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhea. This could lead to severe dehydration, liver and kidney failure and death.

If ricin is inhaled (breathed in), symptoms occur within 8 hours and include nausea, fever, cough, chest tightness and difficulty breathing. This could lead to fluid in the lungs, respiratory failure and death.

If ricin is injected, the muscles and lymph nodes near the injection site would die. This could lead to liver and kidney failure and death.

All routes of exposure to ricin are dangerous. Death can occur within 36-72 hours of exposure, depending on the route of exposure and the amount of ricin received. If a person lives longer than 5 days after ricin poisoning without complications, he will probably not die.

What should I do if I think I have ricin poisoning?

If you think you have been exposed to ricin powder or liquid:

  • Remove any clothing that may have ricin on it and wash your skin with soap and water.
  • Seek medical care immediately.

If you have ingested ricin:

  • Do not induce vomiting.
  • Seek medical care immediately.

What is the treatment for ricin poisoning?

There is no specific treatment for ricin poisoning nor is there a vaccine. A person with ricin poisoning should be admitted to the hospital for medical care to treat the symptoms of exposure.

How can ricin poisoning be prevented?

Do not grow the castor bean plant indoors or in areas where people may come in contact with the beans. Do not drink castor oil for medicinal purposes.