Poison letters. Evacuations on Capitol Hill. Eerie similarities to the Anthrax attacks in the wake of September 11. A deadly agent so simple to concoct that the 14-step instructions are all over the internet.
Ricin, sent in a letter to President Obama and a member of the Senate this week, is derived from a bean that can be purchased in a garden store or online. When it’s ingested or inhaled, Ricin can kill within 72 hours.
The FBI said Wednesday that the letters addressed to the president and Senator Roger Wicker (R, Miss.) tested positive for Ricin and contained the words: “To see a wrong and not expose it, is to become a silent partner to its continuance.”
Both letters were signed, “I am KC and I approve this message” — seemingly a reference to the standard message that follows all political ads. The FBI did not release any more information about the contents of the letters or their post marks.
The letter addressed to Mr. Obama was intercepted before it reached the White House and “preliminarily tested positive” for Ricin, according to the FBI. The letter to Sen. Wicker was sent the day before and was intercepted at an off-site mail screening facility.
The U.S Capitol Police cleared parts of the Senate office buildings on Wednesday as they investigated suspicious packages.
Easy to make — if you don’t kill yourself
The poison can even be ingested by chewing on a Castor bean. Just one can land you in the hospital.
The seeds are available online — about $3 for a starter kit — and there is almost no way to control what a buyer ultimately does with the beans.
The process for extracting Ricin may be simple, but it’s also very dangerous. There is a strong possibility of killing yourself in the process, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Creating the powder form of the poison takes about four days and requires various tedious steps — including safety extensive precautions. Inhaling or ingesting as few as two granules during the process can be deadly.
The bean has lots of legitimate uses. Castor oil — in addition to its well-known properties as a laxative — is an ingredient in many beauty products. Factories processing the beans using strict safety protocols to handle the by-products, which often contain ricin.
The use of Ricin as a weapon goes back to World War I, when the U.S. government considered deploying it but abandoned the idea. According to the CDC, the U.S. military also experimented with weaponized ricin in the 1940s.
The Soviet Union had no such qualms — the KGB reportedly made use of the poison.
One of the best known cases of death by Ricin was the 1978 assassination of a Bulgarian journalist named Georgi Markov who was stabbed in his thigh by a man with an umbrella on a London street. The umbrella deposited a pellet of ricin under his skin.
photo credit: Wikimedia