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White Powder at Capitol is Ricin, Deadly Plant Poison

But Conn. officials rule it out in post office there

WEDNESDAY, Feb. 4, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- While the investigation continues into the discovery of ricin on Capitol Hill, health officials in Connecticut have now ruled out the deadly poison as the source of a similar powder sent to the Republican National Committee (RNC) there.

The detection of the toxic powder Monday in mail sent to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist prompted the brief quarantining and decontamination of an estimated 40 to 50 Capitol employees and the shutdown of the three Senate office buildings in Washington, D.C., according to news reports.

In Connecticut, an unidentified powder was found leaking from an envelope addressed to the RNC. The incident occurred at the Wallingford postal sorting center, the same site where anthrax was found in 2001.

But late Tuesday night, the Connecticut Department of Health announced that test results of a specimen of the powder proved negative.

"We are confident that the specimen did not contain ricin," Dr. J. Robert Galvin, the health commissioner, said.

No one has been sickened by what federal officials are calling a bioterrorist attack eerily reminiscent of the anthrax-by-mail assaults of late 2001.

Ricin is "by far the most potent plant toxin out there on a weight basis," said Dr. Chris Holstege, director of the division of medical toxicity at the University of Virginia. He is also a member of Virginia's bioterrorism task force.

But the compound may not be a bioterrorist's weapon of choice.

"It's not contagious, it's not a bacteria, it's not a fungus and it does not multiply or get transmitted like the flu from person-to-person," said Dr. Tareg Bey, an associate clinical professor at the University of California, Irvine, and one of about 200 board-certified medical toxicologists in the United States. "It's more a psychological attack than a real threat."

The poison comes from the shell of the castor bean and, as a result, is relatively easy to obtain.

"Availability is the big issue. You can get castor beans and extract it yourself as opposed to nerve agents or botulism or anthrax," Holstege acknowledged. "We have been worried about [terrorists using it]."

But extracting the poison from the plant isn't easy, although some have managed to accomplish it. In the early 1990s, members of a Minnesota cult tried unsuccessfully to poison some police officers and judges. And in a case strikingly similar to the current one, an envelope at a mail facility in Greenville, S.C., was found to contain ricin on Oct. 15, 2003. The powder was in a sealed container, and no one got sick.

Ricin has no legitimate uses, although some scientists are doing preliminary investigations into its value as a chemotherapy agent, said Victor Cohen, director of pharmacology in the department of emergency medicine at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City.

It works by interfering with protein synthesis in the cell, Cohen explained.

There are several ways to deliver ricin for more nefarious purposes.

"The best way to administer it if you want to kill someone is to inject it," Holstege said. "It's toxic in very small amounts." This is essentially what happened to a Bulgarian journalist in 1978 who was jabbed with an umbrella covered with ricin. This method generally affects all cells of the body.

Ricin is also poisonous if ingested and inhaled.

How dangerous it is by inhalation depends on how small the particles are, Holstege said. "Absolutely, just opening it up and have it poof in your face, that could be enough to cause problems," he added. Symptoms would include coughing, shortness of breath and fever turning into pneumonia and possibly death.

Although there is no antidote for ricin, death is not inevitable. "There are reports of people surviving," Holstege said. An experimental vaccine is not yet available.

Most case reports of people being poisoned by ricin have involved injection or ingestion -- not inhalation, Bey said.

Several government agencies have been mobilized to deal with the current ricin attack. The U.S. Capitol Police are investigating the incident, while the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is "more or less in a monitoring phase," said spokesman Von Roebuck.

The Department of Homeland Security, which was recently allocated almost $300 million in additional monies, referred media questions to the Capitol Police.

More information

Find more on ricin at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or Cornell University.

SOURCES: Victor Cohen, Pharm.D., director, pharmacology, department of emergency medicine, Maimonides Medical Center, New York City; Chris Holstege, M.D., director, division of medical toxicity, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, and member, State of Virginia Bioterrorism Task Force; Von Roebuck, spokesman, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; Tareg Bey, M.D., associate clinical professor, University of California at Irvine; William Gerrish, spokesman, Connecticut Department of Public Health, Hartford; Nov. 21, 2003, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report
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