– From the castor bean, Ricinus communis
– Native to Mediterranean, Eastern Africa and India
– Widely grown as an ornamental plant
– Castor oil produced from seed
– Ricin is a cytotoxin
– The white powder in letters sent to officials in USA
– Used to murder Georgi Markov
Ricin comes from the castor bean (also called the castor oil bean) plant. It’s used around the world as an ornamental plant in gardens. Chewing a few beans can kill you, or so will a few grains of the ricin (derived from the plant). Castor oil is also derived from the bean, however the ricin remains in the solid fibre. All parts of the plant contain ricin, however outside of the bean the concentrations are lower.
The poison needs to be inhaled or ingested (it can be manufactured into a powder or a mist). As a cytotoxin it attacks at a molecular level, causing cell death, resulting in respiratory and organ failure and death. The poison is fast acting, but symptoms may take hours to appear and it can take up to ten days for the victim to die.
Ricin has long been used as a weapon. As early as 1918 the US War Department was considering it for warfare. In the ’40s it was tested as an inhalation agent. The the ’40s the US and in the ’80s Iraq manufactured weapons-grade ricin (purified and inhalable particles) and tested on animals and in the field (in artillery shells).
In 2003 two ricin letters (containing it as a white powder) were located at postal facilities in Tennessee and South Carolina – one was addressed to “The White House”. In 2013 an envelope was sent to the office of Mississippi Senator, Roger Wicker.
In 1978 Bulgarian dissident, Georgi Markov, who was exiled in London, was near Waterloo Bridge, waiting for a bus. He felt an impact on the back of his right thigh and turned, but only saw a man bending down to pick up an umbrella. He soon had a high fever and was admitted to hospital where he died three days later. His autopsy revealed a tiny sphere of platinum-iridium alloy, which had a small amount of ricin drilled into it, in his thigh. It’s believed it had been fired from an air gun hidden in the umbrella.