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 Tuesday, 7 January, 2003, 16:05 GMT
Q&A: What is ricin?

Four people have been charged with allegedly developing the lethal poison ricin at a London flat. BBC News Online looks at what ricin is.

What is ricin?

Ricin is a toxic material which can be fatal when inhaled, ingested or - most dangerously - injected.

It is easily produced, and can be extracted from the beans of the castor oil plant.

It can damage the organs, and a combination of pulmonary, liver, renal and immunological failure can lead to death, although people can recover from exposure.

How does it get into the body?

It can be delivered through the air in an aerosol spray, or it can be injected or swallowed.

One to three castor beans chewed by a child, or just eight seeds chewed by an adult can be fatal.

How potent is it?

Just a tiny amount of ricin is enough to kill.

Seventy micrograms or two millionths of an ounce is enough to kill an adult, roughly the equivalent to the weight of a single grain of salt.

Per gram, it is 6,000 times more poisonous than cyanide.

However, terrorism expert Professor Paul Wilkinson told the BBC that it was not possible to cause huge numbers of casualties by simply spraying the substance into the air.

Is there any treatment?

There is currently no antidote to the poison, though scientists are working on a vaccine.

If someone is affected, doctors can only treat their symptoms.

Deputy chief medical officer Dr Pat Troop told the BBC that the public health system has been alerted.

Doctors and the telephone helpline NHS Direct have been briefed so they can answer questions from patients.

How would someone know they were affected?

The first symptoms depend on how the person has been exposed to ricin but can include fever, stomach upsets and coughing.

If someone breaths the poison in, they could suffer serious lung damage, eventually leading to heart failure.

If ricin gets into the digestive system, it can lead to irritation of the gut, gastroenteritis, bloody diarrhoea and vomiting.

It can also affect the central nervous system, and cause seizures.

These effects may not become evident until 24 hours after the person has been exposed to the poison. It could be several days before the most serious problems develop.

Has it been used before?

Traces of ricin have been found in caves in Afghanistan.

The poison was also used to kill Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov by using a specially-equipped umbrella to inject a pellet coated with 450 micrograms of ricin into his leg in an infamous attack on London's Waterloo Bridge in 1978.

Does ricin have any positive benefits?

Ricin is being studied to see if it could form the basis of cancer treatments because it can kill cells easily.

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