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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 18th December 2011 

I decided to go looking for a quotation about joy to begin today’s entry and the one closest to how I feel comes from Mark Twain; ‘Grief can take care of itself, but to get the full value of a joy you must have somebody to divide it with’.

So, what is this joy that I want to get the full value of by dividing it? It is actually, a double joy. I came across a number of new papers about ricin, from Ricinus communis, that, overall, tell the truth about it and, joy becomes double joy, they are in an open access publication so the full details are freely available to anyone interested enough.

I’ve written before about the problems of only being able to read part of a paper because the full detail is behind a paywall. So it was a real delight to find that the journal ‘Toxins’ allows free access to all its papers especially as the November 2011 issue contains a ‘special issue’ entitled ‘Ricin Toxin’.

There are ten papers in all and I won’t claim to have read all of them. Eight of the ten are concerned with aspects of the biochemistry of ricin that are not related to my interest in this toxin. But there are two ‘Understanding Ricin from a Defensive Viewpoint’ by Gareth D Griffiths from the UK’s Porton Down laboratory and ‘Ricinus communis Intoxications in Human and Veterinary Medicine—A Summary of Real Cases’ by Worbs and others from institutions in Germany and Switzerland.

*CBRN is the acronym given to weapons classifed as Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear.

Griffiths’ paper is concerned with ‘the knowledge of the toxicity from ricin poisoning by the likely routes’ plus ways to detect ricin so as to make a speedy diagnosis of any cases of intoxication. In the introduction he cites an article entitled ‘Cooking Up Trouble’ by Major René Pita (PhD) and Major Juan Domingo of the Spanish NBC Defence School. The article was published in 2008 by ‘CBRNe* World’ and says ‘the procedures for obtaining ricin from castor plant seeds included in these publications [jihadi publications] are copies from the ones included in the “cookbooks” but are not capable of achieving a good product for causing a large number of casualties by any exposure route, mainly because of the low content of toxin of the final extracts’.

Griffiths goes on to look at work on inhalation of ricin and finds that very small particle sizes are required to cause fatal poisoning even when animals are forced to breathe a ricin rich aerosol. He points out that animals given larger particles or a non-lethal dose recover completely within fourteen days. All of the reported work has been done on animals because, as Griffiths says, ‘There are no human cases of inhaled ricin to report’.

He also notes that ‘Much more ricin is required to achieve lethality by the oral route’ when looking at experiments with ingested ricin in mice and rats. He points out that injected ricin, even in an impure form, is the most effective way of achieving a fatal outcome but notes that this means of achieving poisoning is mostly found in suicides or, in one case, murder/suicide.

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

Ricinus communis

Worbs and associates are primarily concerned with poisoning in animals as a result of the use of castor bean mash as a feed or fertilizer but, as part of a full survey, look at human poisonings.

An important point is made; ‘Fatalities after uptake of seeds mainly occurred in the pre-modern medicine era without effective supportive care’. When someone is citing instances of fatal poisoning, whether from Ricinus communis or any other substance, it is worth considering whether the outcome would still be fatal today.

As a counter to the often stated ‘one bean will kill a child’, the review cites a Sri Lankan study of 46 cases of accidental poisoning of children by castor bean ingestion (from 1984 to 2001) that found none of them to have a fatal outcome. Back in the 1960s, a study found 57 cases in India, again, with none proving fatal.

A 2011 paper looked at the 45 fatalities from over 2 million plant poisoning cases reported to the American Association of Poison Control Centers from 1983 to 2009. Only 1 of the 45 was the result of Ricinus communis poisoning.

On human poisonings the review concludes ‘Overall—among all plant poisonings reported—human cases of ricin poisoning are rare. With modern supportive care the fatality rate is low, except in suicide cases where a ricin-containing extract is injected, reflecting the higher toxicity after parenteral application’.

Wouldn’t it be nice if future writings about ricin, of all descriptions, cited these papers to give a proper view of the poison? We’ll have to wait and see.