(LIN) — On Wednesday, the Secret Service investigated a "suspicious" letter delivered to President Barack Obama. An investigation revealed that the letter contained a poisonous substance called ricin.
This comes one day after a letter mailed to Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) also tested positive for the poison.
But what is ricin, and are you in any danger? Here are list of frequently asked questions from information compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What is ricin?
Ricin is a poison derived naturally from castor beans and can be in the form of a powder, mist or pellet. It can also be dissolved in water or a weak acid.
How is it used?
Ricin can be made from waste material left over from the processing of castor beans. Those beans are used globally to make castor oil. Ricin is used in certain experimental medicines to kill cancer cells.
How can it be dangerous?
When ricin enters cells in the body, it prevents the cells from creating the proteins they need, causing cells to die. Depending on how someone comes into contact with ricin and how much is consumed will effect the severity of the effects on the body.
How can I be exposed?
Other than chewing or swallowing castor beans, it would take a deliberate act to come into contact with ricin. It has been used in the past as a terrorist and warfare agent, after being incorporated into a partially purified material. The U.S. military has experimented with ricin in the past as a possible warfare agent, and some reports link ricin as a warfare agent in the 1980s in Iraq and more recently in terrorist organizations. Coming into contact with someone poisoned with ricin is not contagious, unless you come into contact with the ricin itself.
What are the symptoms?
Initial symptoms of ricin poison after inhalation may occur as early as 4-8 hours, depending on the dose and route of exposure. Symptoms of ingestion occur in less than 10 hours. Death by ricin can occur 36 to 72 hours after exposure, depending on dose.
If inhaled, symptoms include difficulty breathing, fever, cough, nausea and tightness in the chest. The skin may turn blue due to heavy breathing, and excess fluid in the lungs could accumulate. Eventually, respiratory failure could occur, leading to death.
If ingested, symptoms include vomiting and bloody diarrhea, resulting in severe dehydration and low blood pressure. Within several days, liver, spleen and kidney functions could stop, resulting in death.
If eye or skin contact occurs, redness and pain will begin at the contact site. If ricin contact happens on hands, and someone eats food, it could be ingested.
How is it treated?
There is no known antidote, but medical care is given to those exposed by relieving the effects via IVs and assistance breathing. Sometimes, a stomach can be flushed to remove the ricin from the body if recently ingested.
What to do if you are exposed?
Remove yourself from the area where the ricin was released. If you are indoors, leave the building.
Remove your clothing as quickly as possible, taking care not to pull it over your head.
Wash any ricin from your skin with large amounts of soap and water. Rinse your eyes with water for 10 minutes, take out your contacts and do not put them back in your eyes.
Place your clothing in a plastic bag, along with anything else that may have come into contact with the ricin. Seal the bag and place it in another plastic bag, then report it to the authorities.
Contacting officials about ricin:
- Regional poison control center: 1-800-222-1222
- CDC Public Response Hotline: 1-800-CDC-INFO (TTY: 888-232-6348)
- email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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