Ricin danger mostly theoretical

April 17, 2013, 9:26 pm

Castor beans

Castor beans

A Mississippi man was arrested today under suspicion of sending letters to President Obama and Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss) that gave a positive preliminary test for ricin. Further, more conclusive tests are under way.

In the wake of the bombings at the Boston Marathon, it is understandable that this revelation would be unsettling, inevitably brining to mind the deadly anthrax letters that were sent shortly after 9/11. Yet, in my opinion, the concern is overblown. False positive tests for ricin are common — after all, castor beans are common and often present in and around homes. In addition, although ricin is theoretically a powerful toxin, it is extremely difficult to turn it into an effective bioweapon. For reasons I explained almost a decade ago in a column in Emergency Medicine News, ricin has never been proven to have killed anyone, and has never been successfully deployed as a biological weapon. (The Washington Post made a similar point in an article posted today.)

[Photograph of castor beans from wikipedia.org]


  1. Jim Says:

    Good points–and a good reminder for the news media (as if it needed any after Wednesday’s hyperventilating reporting from Boston) to step back and get solid information. Thanks.

  2. Leon Says:


    Thanks for the comment! News media, with rare exemptions, have typically overplayed the risks of ricin as a toxic weapon.