Tuesday, February 03, 2009

A METAPHOR FOR PREDATOR STATE SECURITY: You can make ricin in the bathtub

On Sunday, the NY Times mag published a story with a succinct description of the US as a predator state in a story entitled "The Big Fix," humor at its title apparently unintentional.

The explanation of interest in attributed to dead economist Mancur Olson.

"In Olson's telling," the magazine writes, "successful countries give rise to interest groups that accumulate more and more influence over time. Eventually, the groups become powerful enough to win government favors, in the form of new laws or friendly regulators. These favors allow the groups to benefit at the expense of everyone else..."

While inexact, it can now be broadly applied to much of what is the daily business of the American national security industry, even down at the lowest or most trivial level.

Take, for instance, the development of a vaccine for ricin. Prior to 9/11, the scientist who developed it probably would not have been able to gin up much interest.

This is because NO ONE EVER DIES from ricin poisoning in the United States. It just doesn't happen. In the grand scheme of things, you're more likely to be stung to death by honey bees.

This changed post 9/11 because of the impression that all manner of poisons and exotic weapons of death were easy for terrorists to deploy.

Over five years ago, your host thoroughly examined the idea that one could make a WMD at home from ricin and pronounced it a joke. (See here, here, and here.)

For the sake of the war on terror, however, everyone was hectored into believing terrorists could easily make ricin at home. This myth-making has been so successful it has generated a steady stream of astonishingly stupid white American men to put in jail. And it has inspired a regular number of hoaxes in which mean-spirited people anonymously inform the public they are about to unleash a ricin murder spree.

Indeed, only recently Major General (ret) Donna Barbisch, an alleged expert on WMDs, claimed "You can make ricin in your bathtub."

This is patently not so but in today's predator state ecology, it's still OK -- even great -- to pose as an authority and tell people rubbish so they remain poorly informed about what it is you're really up to: Doing the daily duty of making up menaces so one appears a useful member of society and the career is not threatened.

It is good policy and good business to do this all the time.

So, in this way, we've been saddled with a ricin vaccine. In a manner of speaking, even if one admires the science of it, it's a form of upscale welfare for those who don't need it, one that generates no real jobs or benefit for standard Americans.

There is no and never will be a natural market for a ricin vaccine. The only people in the United States who occasionally actually may need a ricin vaccine are people who work with pure ricin and astonishingly stupid white men who can be always counted upon to fiddle with castor bean powder.

Ricin can theoretically be used to poison a person. And pure ricin can poison lab animals quite effectively. But since it is, more accurately, a potential tool of assassination or a thing for possibly poisoning someone in your family, a vaccine makes no sense at all. It's impossible to predict who such people may be ahead of time in order to protect them and a mass hazard just doesn't exist.

Last week, I devoted a post to explaining to writers of potential murder mysteries how a ricin maniac might actually get something that works, rather than ground up castor seeds only good enough to get them to jail. A ricin maniac would try to get it from a lab where they're testing ricin vaccines or just try to order it, posing as a scientist, from some place like here or here. (The latter made botox for criminals so perhaps they could be inveigled into making up some fresh pure ricin, too.)

But there are those writers who may want to think of their maniac as someone more technically adept. In this, they're a bit stuck because, repeat after DD, "You can't make ricin in the bathtub."

One way to deal with ricin is to look at it as part of the castor plant's protein content. Because there is not quite enough of it in castor beans (and it's just not quite toxic enough -- hard to believe, but true, relatively speaking), the castor plant has been fairly easy on humankind. For instance, it makes an attractive decorative plant.

So to get started, your maniac will want to mash the castor seeds and get rid of the castor oil. Pressing isn't a bad way to do it.

Assuming dry castor powder, you can get at the proteins in castor seeds in the same way you would get at the proteins in something more benign and common, like wheat germ.

In any case, the leftover mash can be suspended in a water buffer, in the cold, and swirled for some time. That would dissolve most of the undenatured protein in the castor mash, of which ricin would only be one part.

One would then remove the solid remains, of which there will be quite a bit, through high speed centrifugation or filtration.

Using centrifugation, the refuse will collect as a paste or pellets at the bottom of the spun containers. The liquor, which contains soluble protein from any plant seeds, like castor, is kept. So after centrifuging, one is left with a water buffer with your dissolved material, which potentially includes ricin.

Another common chemical compound, pure ammonium sulfate, can be used to precipitate proteins from solution. One adds the proper amount and sees the formation of a flocculent material in the buffer. Then it's back to the refrigerated centrifuge, for some spinning time in the cold.

What would be left would be a gross precipitate of the plant's proteins in a pellet or layer on the bottom of the centrifuged containers. The liquid is poured off and what remains is a mix of proteins, potentially including ricin, and some ammonium sulfate.

And that's about as far as one gets without DD going all scientific on you. It's not a purification, per se, but it is a start, and as an application of basic scientific techniques, it's a relatively significant improvement over just grinding castor seeds and throwing acetone on the powder. It's not orders of magnitude improvement in purification but it is a crude accumulation of plant proteins.

There are some fine details not included in such a general discussion.

Being scientific, for instance, requires one to pay attention to matters of denaturation and spoilage. What's nicely packaged for life in the field in a castor seed gets all undone when it's in a laboratory scheme. And there is the problem of determining the toxicity of the material so that one is, to paraphrase from "Blazing Saddles," not just jerking off. And there's some other stuff, too.

Is that making ricin in the bathtub? Uh-uh.

And could Islamo-Magyver do it? Maybe. The more important question is, "Would it make a useful weapon?" The answer to the first question is, yes, a group in Iraq tried it post-invasion and this was outlined in one of the final annexes of the report of the Iraq Survey Group.

The answer to the second was that, rather obviously, it didn't give them anything militarily interesting.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"stupid white men"

You said that twice. I don't see what relevance race has. Unless your some sort of slavestock piece of shit with a grudge.

4:03 PM  
Blogger George Smith said...

That's "Unless [you're] some sort of slavestock p-o-s with a grudge," kiddo.

5:39 PM  
Anonymous SmoothAmbiguity said...

I once ate half a castor bean on a dare. I shit my ass for a couple of days, lost a few pounds and when I recovered... I was impressed that I had met the Goddess Kali and I felt better than ever before.

8:56 AM  

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