Only days before the airstrikes on Iraq began, French police uncovered two vials containing the deadly toxin ricin in a baggage locker at a Paris train station. The discovery triggered fears of bioterrorism on both sides of the English Channel, because in January British police found ricin in a London flat occupied by several Islamic militants. The militants were arrested on terrorist charges.
Ricina natural product of the age-old and ubiquitous castor plant famous for its castor oilis not on the A list of weapons of mass destruction, as tabulated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is not infectious, and mass dispersal requires that the solid extract be milled into a fine powderdifficult for amateurs. Nonetheless, ricin has been one of Saddam Hussein's favorites. In the 1990s, United Nations inspectors uncovered a decade-long drive to grow and process castor beans for what Iraqi scientists belatedly acknowledged was for Iraq's weapons arsenal. The country's ricin stashes remain unaccounted for.
Ricin is the poor man's poison. The deadly protein is readily extracted from the castor bean using at-home recipes. If injected or swallowed, the toxin penetrates the body's cells. It then knocks out the cells' protein production machinery, leading to cell death. If ricin is inhaled, acute respiratory collapse occurs as the fragile lining cells of the air passages and lungs are destroyed. Once a person is exposed to ricin, there is no known antidote. Minute quantities of ricin are lethal, and they vanish from the victim's body in hours with barely a trace, making it a notorious stealth murder weapon.
But good science may hold the trump card: On the horizon are safe and effective ricin vaccines, medicine that is further along than vaccines being developed to counteract anthrax toxin. The ricin vaccines cause the body to build up antibodies to the damaging castor-derived toxin.