Tuesday, March 04, 2008

CASTOR SEEDS & RICIN: Not much of a threat

Castor seeds in brightly colored jewelry tin, courtesy of Kamel Bourgass.

As the FBI works on the strange case of Roger von Bergendorff, it is elucidating to look back at some under-reported facets on the alleged ease with which ricin is purified from castor seeds.

Initial tests for toxins in the field occasionally show what are known as false positives. In cases of ricin alerts, there are three recent notorious instances. The most famous, often discussed in this blog, was the false positive connected to the Wood Green ricin ring case in London. Castor seeds were found in an apartment above a pharmacy along with some equipment which was tested for the presence of ricin. The test returned a false positive and that result flashed around the world. Confirmatory tests conducted at Porton Down, England's chemical and biological weapons defense facility, uncovered the false positive, showing no ricin.

A second notable false positive was connected to a case in which an Arizona man was banged up on the charge of attempting to make a biological weapon.

Casey Cutler, a drug addict, had been beaten up by his dealers in 2005. He hatched a plan of self-defense involving ricin. However, Cutler could not get castor seeds. Instead, he bought castor oil at a local drug store and attempted to purify ricin from it. Of course, there is no ricin in castor oil.

However, Cutler's roommate -- who was suffering from a respiratory ailment -- became convinced he had been poisoned with ricin and went to a local emergency room where he mentioned this fact to doctors. This triggered the national emergency response plan that is in place to deal with suspected chemical or biological weapons events.

Cutler's apartment was searched and he was subsequently arrested.

Among the materials seized - a bag of pinto beans, a bottle of castor oil from Albertson's, Red Devil lye drain opener (because some of the Internet ricin recipes* call for it, even though it destroys the ricin protein), and "a mirror with powder on the bathroom vanity counter," according to evidence proffers in the case

Vials to be worn around the neck like lockets were also seized, one containing a "dark plant-like residue" which tested positive for ricin at the state's lab. This was, according to Cutler's lawyer, most probably remainders from Cutler's marijuana stash.

This bad result was produced by a time-resolved immunofluorescence (TRF) assay for ricin, a test that is used nationally in the response network at the time. It also had a history of false positives.

While Cutler's attorney said it took the FBI little time to determine in interview that Cutler did not have ricin, it took another four days for Arizona to send the sample out of state and get a negative on the presumed marijuana leftovers.

A third case involved a roll of coins found in a college dorm's laundry room in Texas. The roll was covered in some manner of powder (detergent?) and students became suspicious. Authorities were summoned and the roll of coins tested. The initial test returned a false positive for ricin, everyone flew of the handle, and news went nationwide. Confirming and more thorough lab tests subsequently revealed that the roll of coins from the laundry room was just that.

In the case of the Wood Green ricin ring, scientists at Porton Down undertook the duplication of the recipe of Kamel Bourgass.

The Porton Down men ground castor beans and rinsed them with acetone. They took ten grams of castor beans, five more than called for in the Bourgass recipe, and determined that they contained 290 milligrams of soluble protein, of which ricin was a minority component, 63 milligrams. By gross weight, a castor bean contains approximately 0.6 percent ricin, a very small amount, a quantity confirmed by Porton Down. Naturally castor beans do contain ricin and one expects to find ricin in a powder or mash of them.

In addition, to get an idea on the toxicity of ricin, Porton Down undertook another test of the dried ground castor bean mixture it had produced. The scientist performing the test found the ricin in the mixture to be an order of magnitude less toxic than Porton Down's laboratory ricin standard. That is, of the 63 milligrams of ricin, a small quantity, thought to be present, only ten percent was still intact and biologically active.

Put another way, duplicating the Kamel Bourgass ricin recipe -- which was typical of ricin recipes found on the Internet -- revealed that in the process of reducing castor beans to a dry mash, a great part of the small amount of active ricin in an intact castor bean is actually destroyed.

Also in the documents pertaining to this matter, a Porton Down scientist wrote that if one assumed a starting mass of five grams of castor seeds, and took the protein mash of it, if consumed that material would constitute ONE lethal dose if injected but would not be sufficient to kill if eaten. If consumed, it would likely cause symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain. The recipe seized at Wood Green called for five grams.

Are five grams of castor beans a WMD?

Most certainly not.

In the years since 9/11, much original information on the castor plant has been forgotten in this country. The castor plant is not an enemy of man and, in fact, is still thought of as an attractive decorative plant in places like ... Brooklyn.

In the past, the United States processed castor seeds.

On the world wide web page of an American animal feed and fertilizer company, it said, "In 1857, "H.J. Baker & Bro., Inc., [built] the Baker Castor Oil Company in Jersey City, New Jersey." "... Of great importance [was castor seed oilcake] ... This material [was] the first fertilizer product offered ..."

This being the case, castor seed oilcake and seeds containing ricin would have had to travel the roads of the country. If one searches further, reference to it can be found in municipal codes for the transporting of "hazardous materials" via trucking. Castor seed oilcake is a material that does not require a 24-hour emergency phone hotline listed on the shipping manifest. In the Texas city of Laredo's municipal code, the materials, referred to as "castor bean," "castor meal," "castor flake," and "castor pomace" are things deemed of the same hazard, or lack of it, as "dry ice," "fish meal," "fish scrap," "battery powered equipment," "battery powered vehicle," "electric wheelchair" and "refrigerating machine."

Castor seed powder was frequently used as fertilizer in this country. In the periodical called Timely Turf Topics, the publication of United States Golf Association Green Section, an issue from November 1942 reported that the country was using over 80,000 tons of castor seed mash as fertilizer annually. The Golf Association Green Section periodical was devoted to providing information to golf green managers on the maintenance of beautiful grass turf. During World War II, nitrates were diverted for the war effort, necessitating use of alternative fertilizers, of which castor seed mash was one.

In the November 1941 issue of Timely Turf Topics, the association grapples with the problem of controlling mole crickets in southern golf courses.

"It is reported that turf in some sections of Georgia and Florida has just experienced the worst infestation of mole crickets in a number of years," reads the issue. "Attempts to eradicate them from turf by the use of well-known poison bait as well as by treatments with arsenate of lead, ground tobacco stems and castor meal have not been successful in several localities this fall."

The point to be made is that people once worked with large quantities of the grind of castor seeds in this country without dropping like flies. Castor beans were considered a renewable resource, used as a source of lubricant and fertilizer. Even golf course gardeners worked with castor mash, noting that it wasn't so hot as an insecticide, being ineffective against mole crickets.

There has been a collective loss of memory of such practical information in this country. In its place, emergency news erupts a couple of times of year in which ricin and castor seeds are discovered in someone's possession, with everyone near it having to be decontaminated and their clothes thrown into a bag for disposal. Photos of hazmart workers in plastic isolation suits multiply. The real-time imagery is of the kind one sees in sci-fi movies devoted to various biological end-of-the-world themes.

The true hazard posed by castor seeds, the many so-called recipes for ricin in fringe books and on the Internet, and the people who fiddle with them seems to be reflected in a much different reality, one that is paradoxically not easily accepted because it has more to do with the application of common sense than belief in elaborate theoretical nightmares. If the historical record is accurate, no one other than Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov has ever died from an attack by ricin. And in 1995, an American woman named Debora Green attempted to poison her husband with castor seeds. He became very ill but survived. Green subsequently murdered two of her children by setting the house on fire.

If there are others who have been killed by ricin attack, the number is legitimately trivial compared to other methods of murder in the news everyday.

From this we can draw one conclusion: We appear to have collectively lost our minds for the sake of security from something that just isn't much of a threat at all.

Timely Turf Topics

The Cutler case false positive.

The Porton Down analysis of the Bourgass recipe for ricin. At GlobalSecurity.Org.

Presence of ricin in Von Bergendorff case confirmed by Centers for Disease Control, see here.

An example of poison powder hysteria in Las Vegas.

Ricin terror overblown at UPI.

Selected quotes and excerpts:

The long period of time Bergendorff had been hospitalized also "presents some difficulties" ... Any ricin he had been exposed to "might have been metabolized out" by this time.

As it [stands] there was no evidence that Bergendorff had been exposed. "Acute respiratory distress (like Bergendorff's) is a common presentation at ER..."

[Your friendly neighborhood GlobalSecurity.Org Senior Fellow] said the kind of processing [Internet recipes for ricin] recommended "actually reduces the amount of ricin present" in the powder.


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