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By Mr.

Reid Kirby

Since the late 1980s, there has been a growing concern that terrorists might
adopt chemical and biological weapons. Ricin (Agent W)1—due to its simplicity
in extraction, availability of materials, toxicity, and a few would-be attempts
to acquire it—has been a prominent counterterrorism concern. This concern
stems mostly from the toxicity of ricin and partially from its little-understood
military history.

Origins its distribution. The term ricin was As a tool in science, ricin has
coined in 1888 by Herman Still- contributed to early immunology,

T
he source of ricin, the castor
bean, has been a well- mark to name the toxic proteina- the treatment of cancer, and the
known poison since ancient ceous substance he extracted from understanding of cell biology. Its
times. Ingesting two to four seedsthe castor bean for his aggluti- military history began during World
induces nausea, muscle spasms, nation experiments.2 This plant War I as America’s first venture
and purgation—eight seeds leads holotoxin was later used in Paul into biological warfare, but ricin
Ehrlich’s famous immunology
to convulsions and death. Castor oil faded into obscurity after World
(which makes up over half the experiments. War II when it was surpassed by
weight of these seeds) has been the much more potent botulinum
used in ancient India, Egypt, and toxin A (Agent X)3. Eventually,
China as a cathartic and to treat ricin would gain notoriety as an
sores and abscesses. Today, castor espionage tool of assassination and
oil is an important industrial would often be mentioned by po-
feedstock for numerous manufac- tential terrorists. This brief military
turing processes and also is used history of ricin illustrates the
as a lubricant and a laxative. synergy required for a workable
weapon system and the ethical
The castor bean plant (ricinus
issues it posed. Ricin proved diffi-
communis) is a 4- to 12-foot shrub-
cult to weaponize for an aerosol
like herb originating in Southeast
effect, and where it was not diffi-
Africa, but it has a worldwide
cult to weaponize, it represented an
distribution. It is cultivated through-
ethical dilemma.
out the United States as an orna-
mental plant. Carl Linnaeus, the World War I
18th century botanist, derived the uring World War I, the U.S.
plant’s taxonomic name from the
Latin word ricinus (tick) because
of the appearance of its seeds and Ricinus communis, the castor
the word communis (common) for bean plant
D Bureau of Mines studied
the offensive potential of
ricin at the American University
Experimental Station. Two weapon

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concepts were considered: the Given its atrocious reputation, of ricin could have been produced
simplest approach was coating researchers felt that all records on annually. The agent’s most basic
shrapnel and bullets with ricin to ricin should be kept secret or form was an amorphous mass
create a skin effect; the more destroyed.7 termed “crude” ricin, and it was
challenging concept was a “dust essentially the form with which
cloud” that produced a lung effect. World War I investigators had
At the time, limited experimental worked. To get the agent into this
work on animals demonstrated usable aerosol form, it needed to
that it was possible to weaponize be added to a volatile solvent
ricin. Interestingly, the average (fluidized) or milled into a fine
time it took for an animal to die was powder (micropulverized).
somewhat longer than is reported Fluidization was successful,
in contemporary studies. This early but it seriously diluted the amount
work also identified the main of agent that could be employed.
technical difficulty in weaponizing Micropulverization of a dry-type
ricin: its thermal sensitivity. It was agent was the preferred method,
found that the heat generated and ball milling (the common
while firing the coated bullets method of the time) was used
destroyed a significant amount of Cutaway of a 75-millimeter first. During the milling, the heat
the agent.4 shrapnel shell intended to from the friction was too extreme,
deliver a dry-type agent (prob-
The recommendation at the and the agent was almost entirely
ably a vomiting agent).
time was to investigate ricin-coated destroyed, so an alternate method
shrapnel or bullets immediately World War II of milling and drying had to be
but hold off on a dust cloud weapon developed. Spray-drying the agent

E
arly in World War II,
until an antitoxin could be made England and Canada began and using a specially designed
available. This posed the ethical work on ricin for use in chilled-air grinder produced an
dilemma mentioned earlier: a lung 4-pound bursting bomblets.8 The agent that had lost little toxicity.
effect from ricin was an accept- French also had an interest in ricin This was the formulation that was
able form of chemical warfare, but but, like early U.S. investigators, termed Agent W throughout field
ricin-coated shrapnel and bullets felt that it was too dangerous to trials.
were considered to be an act of study without first having an There were three field trials at
poisoning and thus were ethically antitoxin. 9 The U.S. military’s Dugway Proving Ground in May
prohibited.5 Ricin-coated shrapnel interest in ricin resurfaced around 1944. Two used a bursting munition
and bullets were only to be used in 1942 as a project of the National resembling the standard 4-pound
retaliation (lex talionis, the law of Defense Research Committee 10 biological bomblet, and another
retaliation) against the Germans if and led to chamber and field trials used a tail-ejecting spraying
they used a similar “poisoned” at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah, munition. The tests were conducted
weapon. in 1944.11 These efforts differed in the G-2 Canyon Test Site on the
By the end of the war, re- from those of the previous war in northern slope of Granite Peak.
searchers could only weaponize that only a lung effect was being Katabatic winds blew the aerosol
ricin in coated shrapnel and bullets considered, and considerable ad- cloud over 50, 100, 200, and 400
or by using a dust cloud for a vances had been made in the sampling arcs. The trials indicated
blinding-eye effect 6 (the lung science of aerosols.12 However, the that ricin was only lethal as long as
effect from a dust cloud could not thermal sensitivity of ricin re- the cloud was still visible to the
be confirmed). Though four manu- mained the major technical hurdle. unaided eye.
facturers had been identified and Theoretically, there is about A pilot manufacturing plant
the U.S. Army desired to have 1 gram of pure ricin per kilogram produced 1,700 kilograms of ricin.
three field trials with ricin, time of cold-pressed castor bean cake. Planners designed a $127,000
and ethics prevailed, and the war Given the U.S. production of full-scale plant for producing
ended without a usable weapon. castor oil during the war, 1,000 tons micropulverized crude ricin, which

2 CML
would have been capable of Georgi Markov, lived in London Experimental Station, Washington, D.C.,
producing 26 pounds of agent and died from mysterious cir- 30 April 1918.
5
a day at $13 a pound (in 1944). cumstances. The other, Vladimir Traditionally, there has been an
ethical distinction between chemical and
Between 1943 and 1944, a Kostov, lived in Paris and survived biological warfare and poisoning. A more
crystallization method was also after doctors removed a small pellet complete description of this distinction
developed that produced a more from his back. A laboratory analy- can be found in a book by R. M. Price,
potent agent. It has been suggested sis identified the pellet as a carrier The Chemical Weapons Taboo, Cornell
that there were field trials with for ricin. According to Kostov, the University Press, 1997.
6
the crystallized agent after 1944, pellet must have been discharged At the time, this blindness was
probably assumed to be permanent, but
but the documentation supporting from a dart gun disguised as an contemporary animal experiments note
this has not been located. umbrella. There may have been at only temporary eye effects.
Despite being successfully least six assassination attempts by 7
Personal letter from R. Hunt (Har-
weaponized during World War II, this method.13 vard Medical School Department of
the United States did not adopt Today there are numerous Pharmacology) to Major C. J. West,
18 March 1919.
ricin. Being a delayed-action non- how-to books that claim to provide 8
These investigations included field
persistent lung agent, it offered readers with the methods of trials at the Defense Research Establish-
little tactical advantage over exist- obtaining ricin for terrorist uses. ment Suffield at Ralston, Alberta
ing agents. Its higher potency made There have been cases of people (Canada), and did not exceed the
it marginally better, but it was trying to acquire it for use in ter- development efforts of the United
surpassed by the even more potent rorism. Small quantities (less than States.
9
biologicals of the time. The military a kilogram) have been found in S. M. Whitby, Biological Warfare
Against Crops, Palgrave Macmillan,
history of ricin ended without it police raids. It does not appear that 2002, p. 81.
ever being used on the battlefield. terrorists are mastering the tech- 10
A. C. Cope, J. Dee, and R. K.
Contemporary Events nology needed to make ricin an Cannan, Chapter 12, “Ricin,” in B. Ren-
effective weapon, but their preoc- shaw (ed), Summary Technical Report of

U
nlike during World War I cupation is inherently dangerous. Division 9, Vol. 1, PB 158507-8,
and World War II, when National Defense Research Committee,
Endnotes
today’s military research- 1
1946.
The military assigned the letter W 11
D. T. Parker, A. C. Parker, and C.
ers work with ricin, they focus to ricin during World War II.
on detecting it, protecting the K. Ramachandran, Part 3, “Ricin,” in
2
Herman Stillmark, “Ueber Rizin, Joint CB Technical Data Source Book,
forces from it, and treating its ein giffiges Ferment aus dem Samen von Vol. IV, Joint Contact Point Directorate,
effects. The prospects of the agent Ricinlis commurris L. und einigen U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground,
being used on the battlefield seem anderen Euphorbiaceen,” Inaug. Diss Utah, 1996.
remote; however, it has been used Dorpat, 1888. 12
Aerosols were a technical problem
3
in espionage for assassinations, The military assigned the letters that eluded the researchers of World War I.
XR after World War II. 13
Joseph D. Douglas, Jr. and Neil
and would-be terrorists have been 4
R. R. Williams, Final Report on C. Livingston, America the Vulnerable:
caught in the act of acquiring it. Ricin, Report #OM347.4, Offensive The Threat of Chemical and Biological
For example, two Bulgarian Chemical Research Division, Bureau of Warfare, Lexington Books, Lexington,
exiles were attacked in 1978. One, Mines, American University Massachusetts, 1987, pp. 84-85.

April 2004 3

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