What is ricin?
- Ricin is a poison that can be made from the waste left over from processing castor beans.
Where is ricin found and how is it used?
- Castor beans are processed throughout the world to make castor oil. Ricin is part of the waste “mash” produced when castor oil is made.
- Ricin has some potential medical uses, such as bone marrow transplants and cancer treatment (to kill cancer cells).
How could people be exposed to ricin?
- Accidental exposure to ricin is highly unlikely. It would take a deliberate act to make ricin and use it to poison people.
- Exposure to ricin can happen either by ingesting (swallowing) or inhaling (breathing) material containing ricin. In a few rare, past cases, injections of ricin have led to poisoning. This is a very unlikely method of exposure because it requires someone to actually inject the material into you.
- Ricin poisoning is not contagious. It cannot be spread from person to person through casual contact.
What form is ricin found in? Is it a powder?
- Ricin can be in the form of a powder, a mist, or a pellet, or it can be dissolved in water or weak acid.
How toxic is ricin? How do people get sick from it?
- Ricin is very toxic. It works 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. Eventually this is harmful to the whole body, and may cause death.
- As with most chemicals, whether or not a person becomes ill after exposure to ricin depends on how much ricin the person was exposed to, how long the exposure lasted, what the exposure method was (inhalation, ingestion, or injection), and other factors. In general, when the dose is the same, being exposed to ricin by injection has the greatest potential for causing illness, followed by inhalation, and then ingestion.
What does ricin do to the human body?
- Ricin works 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. Eventually this is harmful to the whole body, and death may occur.
Is ricin contagious?
- Ricin poisoning is not contagious. People who were not present where the ricin was found are not likely to have been exposed at levels high enough to negatively affect their health.
What are the long-term effects of ricin exposure?
- No long-term direct effects are known to exist from ricin exposure that did not result in symptoms.
- Following severe ricin poisoning, the damage done to vital organs may be permanent or have lasting effects.
Are certain populations more vulnerable to the health effects of ricin exposure, such as children, pregnant women, the elderly, people who are immunocompromised, or people with respiratory or gastrointestinal (GI) tract illnesses?
- Although it is unknown whether these populations are at higher risk, the possibility of higher risk does exist.
- People who have existing illnesses of the respiratory or GI tract may have pre-existing tissue irritation or damage as a result of their illness. If this damaged or irritated tissue is exposed to ricin, the result may be further injury and greater absorption of the ricin toxin.
What are the signs and symptoms of ingested ricin exposure?
- The major symptoms of ricin poisoning depend on the route of exposure and the dose received, though many organs may be affected in severe cases.
- Initial symptoms of ricin poisoning by inhalation may occur as early as 4- 8 hours and as late as 24 hours after exposure. Following ingestion of ricin, initial symptoms typically occur in less than 10 hours.
- Inhalation: Within a few hours of inhaling significant amounts of ricin, the likely symptoms would be respiratory distress (difficulty breathing), fever, cough, nausea, and tightness in the chest. Heavy sweating may follow as well as fluid building up in the lungs (pulmonary edema). This would make breathing even more difficult, and the skin might turn blue. Excess fluid in the lungs would be diagnosed by x-ray or by listening to the chest with a stethoscope. Finally, low blood pressure and respiratory failure may occur, leading to death. In cases of known exposure to ricin, people having respiratory symptoms should seek medical care.
- Ingestion: If someone swallows a significant amount of ricin, he or she would likely develop vomiting and diarrhea that may become bloody. Severe dehydration may be the result, followed by low blood pressure. Other signs or symptoms may include seizures, and blood in the urine. Within several days, the person’s liver, spleen, and kidneys might stop working, and the person could die.
- If someone has ingested ricin, do not induce vomiting or give fluids to drink.
- Skin and eye exposure: Ricin is unlikely to be absorbed through normal skin. Contact with ricin powders or products may cause redness and pain of the skin and the eyes. However, if you touch ricin that is on your skin and then eat food with your hands or put your hands in your mouth, you may ingest some.
- Death from ricin poisoning could take place within 36 to 72 hours of exposure, depending on the route of exposure (inhalation, ingestion, or injection) and the dose received.
- Seek medical attention right away. Dial 911 and explain what has happened, say you have a medical emergency and that you have ingested ricin.
Can a person die from ricin exposure?
- Yes, depending on the type of exposure (inhalation, ingestion, or injection) and the dose received.
- Death from ricin poisoning could take place within 36 to 72 hours of exposure. If death has not occurred in 3 to 5 days, the victim usually recovers.
How is ricin exposure treated?
- No antidote exists for ricin. The most important factor is avoiding ricin exposure in the first place.
- Once exposed, the most important factor is then getting the ricin off or out of the body as quickly as possible.
- Ricin poisoning is treated by giving victims supportive medical care to minimize the effects of the poisoning.
- Care could include such measures as helping victims breathe, giving them intravenous fluids (fluids given through a needle inserted into a vein), giving them medications to treat conditions such as seizure and low blood pressure, flushing their stomachs with activated charcoal (if the ricin has been very recently ingested), or washing out their eyes with water if their eyes are irritated.
What should I do if I am exposed to ricin?
- Immediately leave the area where the ricin was released. Moving to an area with fresh air is a good way to reduce the possibility of death from exposure to ricin.
- If the ricin released was outside, move away from the area where the ricin was released.
- If the ricin release was indoors, get out of the building.
- If you are near a release of ricin, emergency coordinators may tell you to either evacuate the area or to “shelter in place” inside a building to avoid being exposed to the ricin.
- EXPOSURE: If you think you may have been exposed to ricin, you should remove your clothing, rapidly wash your entire body with soap and water, and get medical care as quickly as possible.
How do I handle my clothing if I have been exposed to ricin?
- Quickly take off clothing that may have ricin on it. Any clothing that has to be pulled over the head should be cut off the body instead of pulled over the head.
- If you are helping other people remove their clothing, try to avoid touching any contaminated areas, and remove the clothing as quickly as possible.
How should I wash myself off after being exposed to ricin?
- As quickly as possible, wash any ricin from your skin with large amounts of soap and water. Washing with soap and water will help protect people from any chemicals on their bodies.
- If your eyes are burning or your vision is blurred, rinse your eyes with plain water for 10 to 15 minutes. If you wear contacts, remove them and put them with the contaminated clothing. Do not put the contacts back in your eyes (even if they are not disposable contacts). If you wear eyeglasses, wash them with soap and water. You can put your eyeglasses back on after you wash them.
- The CDC has information about ricin and how to protect yourself CDC Ricin Toxin: Facts about Ricin
What do I do with my clothing that has been exposed to ricin?
- After you have washed yourself, place your clothing inside a plastic bag.
- Avoid touching contaminated areas of the clothing. If you can’t avoid touching contaminated areas, or you aren’t sure where the contaminated areas are, wear rubber gloves.
- Turn the bag inside out and use it to pick up the clothing, or put the clothing in the bag using tongs, tool handles, sticks, or similar objects.
- Anything that touches the contaminated clothing should also be placed in the bag. If you wear contacts, put them in the plastic bag, too.
- Seal the bag, and then seal that bag inside another plastic bag. Disposing of your clothing in this way will help protect you and other people from any chemicals that might be on your clothes.
- Rewash your hands with soap and water after placing items in the bag.
- The CDC has information about how personal belongings should be handled on its Ricin Toxin: Facts about Ricin webpage.
If I was present where the ricin was located, could I have carried it home? Is my house safe?
- If ricin was released into the air, some ricin might have gotten onto the clothing of people who were present and might have then been transported on the clothing to their homes. The likelihood is very low in this instance that enough ricin would have gotten onto your clothing and would have been transported home with you for your health to be threatened.
Is it possible that health effects may not occur until more than 72 hours after exposure to ricin?
- The information that exists on ricin poisoning in people is extremely limited. Much of what we know about ricin poisoning comes from animal studies and only a few human cases.
- However, enough information exists on ricin poisoning by ingestion (swallowing) to say that it is extremely unlikely that the onset of signs and symptoms of ricin poisoning by ingestion would occur more than 10 hours after exposure.
- Much less information exists on ricin poisoning by inhalation (breathing in ricin), but initial poisoning symptoms are very unlikely to begin more than 24 hours after exposure.
Where can I find information about personal protective equipment and cleanup for ricin?
- See the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health emergency response card at https://www.cdc.gov/NIOSH/ershdb/EmergencyResponseCard_29750002.html
Is there a TTY phone line available where I can get information about ricin?
- The CDC has a TTY phone line at 888-232-6348.
Where can I get more information about ricin?
- Contact the Office of Epidemiology and Disease Surveillance at (702) 759-1300.
- Additional information about ricin can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website on Ricin Toxin: Facts about Ricin webpage.
(702) 759-1039 or (702) 759-0889
Updated on: February 21, 2019