Author(s): Schep LJ, Temple WA, Butt GA, Beasley MD
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Abstract In recent years there has been an increased concern regarding the potential use of chemical and biological weapons for mass urban terror. In particular, there are concerns that ricin could be employed as such an agent. This has been reinforced by recent high profile cases involving ricin, and its use during the cold war to assassinate a high profile communist dissident. Nevertheless, despite these events, does it deserve such a reputation? Ricin is clearly toxic, though its level of risk depends on the route of entry. By ingestion, the pathology of ricin is largely restricted to the gastrointestinal tract where it may cause mucosal injuries; with appropriate treatment, most patients will make a full recovery. As an agent of terror, it could be used to contaminate an urban water supply, with the intent of causing lethality in a large urban population. However, a substantial mass of pure ricin powder would be required. Such an exercise would be impossible to achieve covertly and would not guarantee success due to variables such as reticulation management, chlorination, mixing, bacterial degradation and ultra-violet light. By injection, ricin is lethal; however, while parenteral delivery is an ideal route for assassination, it is not realistic for an urban population. Dermal absorption of ricin has not been demonstrated. Ricin is also lethal by inhalation. Low doses can lead to progressive and diffuse pulmonary oedema with associated inflammation and necrosis of the alveolar pneumocytes. However, the risk of toxicity is dependent on the aerodynamic equivalent diameter (AED) of the ricin particles. The AED, which is an indicator of the aerodynamic behaviour of a particle, must be of sufficiently low micron size as to target the human alveoli and thereby cause major toxic effects. To target a large population would also necessitate a quantity of powder in excess of several metric tons. The technical and logistical skills required to formulate such a mass of powder to the required size is beyond the ability of terrorists who typically operate out of a kitchen in a small urban dwelling or in a small ill-equipped laboratory. Ricin as a toxin is deadly but as an agent of bioterror it is unsuitable and therefore does not deserve the press attention and subsequent public alarm that has been created.
This article was published in Environ Int
and referenced in Journal of Bioterrorism & Biodefense