Man Without Qualities

Tuesday, January 07, 2003

When Beano Just Isn't Enough

British police reportedly have arrested six people after finding traces of ricin on equipment and materials at a property in London:

Ricin — one of the world's deadliest toxins, twice as deadly as cobra venom — is derived from the castor bean plant and is relatively easily made. It may be inhaled, ingested or injected. There is no known antidote.

That would be the same castor bean from which castor oil is extracted: In 1978, ricin was used to assassinate Georgi Markov in 1978, a Bulgarian journalist who spoke out against the Bulgarian government. He was stabbed with the point of an umbrella while waiting at a bus stop near Waterloo Station in London. They found a perforated metallic pellet embedded in his leg that had presumably contained the ricin toxin.

Now that all makes ricin sound pretty nasty. It is nasty - but also very common. Ricin is not just made from castor beans - castor beans largely consist of ricin.

The Man Without Qualities lives in Los Angeles, where castor plants grow wild by the sides of freeways and in untended edges of yards. There is a healthy specimen right across the street from the abode of the Man Without Qualities - generous clusters of the soft-spined fruits containing the attractively mottled seedsbeans ripen cheerfully in the sun. It is grown as an ornamental in gardens, sometimes as a houseplant.

When the warm California sun has bathed it enough, the plant will celebrate in a curious vegetable way: its fruits will burst, casting their beans out - sometimes many feet - from their parent. All over any nearby lawn, for example.

This is why many lawnmowers and hedge trimmers and other garden equipment in Los Angeles would probably show substantial traces of ricin.

Occasionally, someone eats some castor beans. If the seed coat is not damaged, the bean generally just passes through the body harmlessly. Emergency room doctors feed people who eat the beans large amounts of granular charcoal - and they often do just fine. If death has not occurred in 3-5 days, the victim usually recovers. Which is not too bad, especially when you consider that ricin is more than 4,000 times as toxic as cyanide on some scales. Just a single ricin molecule that enters the cytosol of a human cell can inactivate over 1,500 ribosomes per minute and kill the cell.

MORE from Derek Lowe.

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