Fact Sheets

Ricin Biotoxin Fact Sheet

APPEARANCE: White powder. Can be prepared in liquid or crystalline form.

DESCRIPTION: Ricin is an extremely toxic plant protein derived from the seeds of the castor bean plant (Ricinus communis). It is easily extracted from the castor bean meal that remains as a by-product of castor oil production. Ricin causes toxicity by inhibiting the formation (synthesis) of proteins in the cells of the exposed individual. Ricin may cause severe allergic reactions. Exposure to even a small amount of ricin may be fatal.


  • Indoor Air: Ricin can be released into indoor air as fine particles (aerosol).
  • Water: Ricin can be used to contaminate water.
  • Food: Ricin can be used to contaminate food.
  • Outdoor Air: Ricin can be released into outdoor air as fine particles (aerosol).
  • Agricultural: If ricin is released into the air as fine particles (aerosol), it has the potential to contaminate agricultural products.

ROUTES OF EXPOSURE: Ricin can be absorbed into the body through ingestion, inhalation, or eye contact. Ricin can be absorbed through abraded skin or through wounds, but probably not through intact skin, unless it is carried in a solvent that enhances absorption. Ricin can also be transmitted through the skin via small pellets or projectiles designed to carry toxin.


TIME COURSE: Physical findings and signs of ricin exposure can occur after a latent (symptom-free) period of a few hours to several days. Effects following ingestion of ricin generally occur within a few hours after ingestion. Gastrointestinal effects generally occur within 6 hours of ricin exposure. Effects on the liver, central nervous system (CNS), kidneys, and adrenal glands typically occur 2 to 5 days after exposure and reflect ricin’s cytotoxic effect. Patients/victims may be asymptomatic prior to the occurrence of these cytotoxic physical findings. Death may occur between 3 and 5 days after the initial exposure to ricin.

EFFECTS OF SHORT-TERM (LESS THAN 8-HOURS) EXPOSURE: Ricin poisons the cells of the body by blocking (inhibiting) the formation (synthesis) of proteins. Contact of ricin with the skin, eyes, lungs, or the moist lining of body passages and cavities (mucous membranes) can cause severe irritation, inflammation, and internal bleeding (hemorrhage). The health effects caused by ricin depend on the route of exposure and the amount of ricin to which the patient/victim is exposed. Ingestion of ricin produces severe vomiting (emesis) and diarrhea which may result in serious dehydration (hypovolemic shock) and multi-system organ failure affecting the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, kidneys, liver and pancreas; these effects are potentially fatal. Inhalation of ricin may cause cough, fever, fluid accumulation in the lungs (pulmonary edema) and respiratory distress; these effects are potentially fatal. Inhalation of ricin may also result in an allergic reaction resulting in nasal passage congestion, dryness and soreness of the throat, swelling of the eyelids and lips, bronchial irritation and possibly asthma. Ricin dust in the eye can cause localized inflammatory lesions. Lesions resulting from ricin exposure resemble alkaline caustic burns, but they are usually delayed two or more hours after exposure. Illness resulting from exposure is not communicable.


Mild to moderate: Tear production (lacrimation); swelling, redness, and inflammation of the membranes (conjunctivitis).

Severe: Severe tissue destruction, possible bleeding of the membrane in the rear of the eye (retinal hemorrhage), impaired vision, blindness.

Contact with the eyes may result in whole-body (systemic) toxicity and possibly death.


Burning pain in the mouth, throat, and esophagus; nausea; difficulty swallowing (dysphagia); vomiting (emesis); vomiting blood (hematemesis); diarrhea; bloody stools (melena); abdominal (epigastric) cramps/pain; severe inflammation of the lining of the stomach and intestine (gastroenteritis); bleeding (hemorrhage) in the stomach and intestines; drowsiness (somnolence); disorientation; weakness; stupor; convulsions; excessive thirst (polydipsia); blood in the urine (hematuria); reduced excretion of urine (oliguria); multi-system organ failure; collapse of the blood vessels (vascular collapse); shock; and death.


May cause severe lung damage and death.

Symptoms may include fever, cough, accumulation of fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema), respiratory distress, and death.


The risk of toxicity from skin exposure to ricin is low.

Ricin may be absorbed through irritated, damaged, or injured skin or through normal skin if aided by a solvent carrier.

There is a potential for allergic skin reactions to occur; signs include redness (erythema), blistering (vesication), irritation, and pain.


INTRODUCTION: The purpose of decontamination is to make an individual and/or their equipment safe by physically removing toxic substances quickly and effectively. Care should be taken during decontamination, because absorbed agent can be released from clothing and skin as a gas. Your Incident Commander will provide you with decontaminants specific for the agent released or the agent believed to have been released.

DECONTAMINATION CORRIDOR: The following are recommendations to protect the first responders from the release area:

Position the decontamination corridor upwind and uphill of the hot zone.

The warm zone should include two decontamination corridors. One decontamination corridor is used to enter the warm zone and the other for exiting the warm zone into the cold zone. The decontamination zone for exiting should be upwind and uphill from the zone used to enter.

Decontamination area workers should wear appropriate PPE. See the PPE section of this card for detailed information.

A solution of detergent and water (which should have a pH value of at least 8 but should not exceed a pH value of 10.5) should be available for use in decontamination procedures. Soft brushes should be available to remove contamination from the PPE.

Labeled, durable 6-mil polyethylene bags should be available for disposal of contaminated PPE.

INDIVIDUAL DECONTAMINATION: The following methods can be used to decontaminate an individual:

Decontamination of First Responder:

Begin washing PPE of the first responder using soap and water solution and a soft brush. Always move in a downward motion (from head to toe). Make sure to get into all areas, especially folds in the clothing. Wash and rinse (using cold or warm water) until the contaminant is thoroughly removed.

Remove PPE by rolling downward (from head to toe) and avoid pulling PPE off over the head. Remove the SCBA after other PPE has been removed.

Place all PPE in labeled durable 6-mil polyethylene bags.

Decontamination of Patient/Victim:

Remove the patient/victim from the contaminated area and into the decontamination corridor.

Remove all clothing (at least down to their undergarments) and place the clothing in a labeled durable 6-mil polyethylene bag.

Thoroughly wash and rinse (using cold or warm water) the contaminated skin of the patient/victim using a soap and water solution. Be careful not to break the patient/victim’s skin during the decontamination process, and cover all open wounds.

Cover the patient/victim to prevent shock and loss of body heat.

Move the patient/victim to an area where emergency medical treatment can be provided.

Protocol for Ricin Response

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