Deadly ricin does have some legitimate uses
Published: Friday, January 14, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 13, 2005 at 11:49 p.m.
OCALA - Ricin, the substance Steven Michael Ekberg is accused of possessing, can kill in extremely small amounts. But it probably would make an inefficient weapon of mass destruction, and it has legitimate uses, including cancer treatment, experts say.
"It is one of the most toxic compounds we know about. It's quite dangerous," said Thomas O'Brien, professor emeritus of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Florida. "It doesn't take much to kill an individual - less than one-tenth of a milligram."
It's also easy to find.
"It's relatively easy to come by if you can find yourself some castor beans," O'Brien said.
Ricin is a natural substance, the byproduct of processing castor beans to make castor oil, used the world over in motor oils, laxatives, cosmetics and other products.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site, ricin can be made in powder, mist or pellet forms, and can be dissolved in water or weak acid. It can be fatal if inhaled, injected or swallowed.
Ricin has served as an assassin's tool. In 1978, Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov died after being stabbed in London with an umbrella that had been modified to inject ricin under his skin.
The poison works by preventing cells in the body from using proteins, O'Brien said.
"You can't make or use any more proteins. As a consequence, you end up dying in a couple of days," he said. There is no known antidote to ricin poisoning.
But the same toxin that kills healthy cells also can be used to save lives.
"The poison can kill tumor cells," said Dr. Michael Bennett, professor of pathology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.
Ricin also has some uses in the research laboratory, Bennett said. He agreed with O'Brien that ricin is highly dangerous to work with.
"Ricin is a very, very potent toxin that is lethal in very low doses," he said. "You have to lock it up, and you've got to be super careful with it."
Even so, the technical requirements of producing ricin limit its usefulness as a weapon of mass destruction, O'Brien said. The volume of chemicals needed to produce it in quantity probably would draw attention to the maker, he said.
Then there's always the risk of poisoning the producer.
"You're running a very great risk," O'Brien said. "If it is inhaled, it's toxic. You don't have to snort very much of it . . . The real danger of it is it's so toxic you could have a very minute amount of it around and if you came in contact with it and inhaled or ingested it, you would have problems."
According to the CDC Web site, any exposure to ricin would probably be the result of a deliberate act. Accidental exposure isn't likely. It can't be spread person-to-person.
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