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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 14th May 2012

Usually when I write about ricin, the highly toxic lectin found in Ricinus communis, castor oil plant, it is to do with yet another reference to it as a bioterrorism weapon. I point out that there is no practical route for causing large scale fatalities using ricin and, even as a one on one weapon, it has a low success rate.

But, of course, a low fatality rate is not the same as a zero fatality rate and a newly reported case from Saudi Arabia illustrates that ricin can kill.1

Interestingly, the death detailed in the case report was the result of the danger of believing that ‘natural’ remedies or herbal preparations are to be preferred over medicine; something I blogged about just two days ago.

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

The victim in this case had been suffering from constipation for five days and took a very large dose of a herbal remedy that turned out to be made, primarily, of ricin. The report does not say if the remedy had been manufactured by a company or concocted specifically for this patient by some ill-informed ‘herbalist’. It seems possible that someone, knowing the laxative properties of castor oil might assume that the pressed mash of castor beans would have similar efficacy. It also seems likely that the deceased took an uncontrolled amount of the preparation.

A significant factor appears to have been the gastrointestinal bleeding possibly caused by the repeated severe vomiting that occurred in the twelve hours prior to his arrival at the hospital. All efforts to save him failed.

But one person dying from the complications caused by the stomach upset produced from ingesting a large amount of ricin doesn’t make me revise my view that stories about its terrorism potential are stupid. And they keep on coming.

The latest is the story that members of a far right group in Florida arrested for planning attacks on ‘Jews, immigrants and minorities’2 had discussed making ricin. The ten people detained sound thoroughly unpleasant but that doesn’t mean they should suffer as a result of the hysteria that, inevitably, follows any mention of the word ‘ricin’. In any event, all ten have been released on bail rather suggesting that there aren’t that much of a threat.

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

The sort of terrorism that ricin can produce is illustrated by another recent story where an elementary school in Manchester, New Hampshire, was evacuated after an envelope was received containing a white powder. Suspicions that the powder was ricin proved unfounded.3

Not every terrorism story features ricin, however. It had no part, for example, in the story that the CIA had thwarted an Al Qaeda plot to use an improved underpants bomb to bring down an airliner.

I mention that because, though it emerged within a day that the whole thing was a CIA backed sting and there was no plot to use such a bomb, I’m sure that, in the future, there will be reference this ‘plot’ as an example of Al Qaeda’s potential.

Just as we still see references to the ‘2003 ricin plot in London’. And it is those references that lead journalists to add ‘plotting to use ricin’ automatically to any story about alleged extremists of whatever political viewpoint. 


1.Ricin poisoning causing death after ingestion of herbal medicine Assiri AS. Ann Saudi Med 2012;32(3):315-317.
2.10 suspects linked to white supremacists busted New York Daily News 9th May 2012 
3.Preliminary Results of 'Suspicious White Powder' That Closed Keeney School Negative Manchester Patch 11th May 2012 
4.CIA derails new al-Qaeda underwear bomb plot The Telegraph 8th May 2012 


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