Toxic Powder Found in Senate Majority Leader's Office

WASHINGTON, DC, February 3, 2004 (ENS) - A suspicious white powder discovered in the mailroom of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee on Monday afternoon has been identified as a form of ricin. Two out of three scientific tests of the substance have confirmed that it is ricin, government officials said.

The powder was found in an envelope in Frist's office suite on the fourth floor of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. The building has been closed, and U.S. Capitol Police are investigating the incident.

Frist's office said, "The U.S. Capitol Police and the Senate community are exercising an abundance of caution while addressing this matter."


Senator Bill Frist, in whose office the ricin was found. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
Fifteen people who were working on the fourth floor of the Dirksen building have been decontaminated, but no one was injured, according to the U.S. Capitol Police.

Ricin is a toxic protein derived from the seeds from the castor bean plant. Using ordinary kitchen equipment ricin can be made from the waste pulp left over after processing castor beans to make castor oil.

Ricin is poisonous whether inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin.

If ricin is inhaled, symptoms can take four to eight hours to show up. If left untreated, respiratory failure and cardiovascular collapse can lead to death after 36 to 72 hours.

Ricin can also get into water or food and then be swallowed. In that case, ricin can lead to death within three days.

"It would take a deliberate act to make ricin and use it to poison people. Accidental exposure to ricin is highly unlikely," say the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.

No antidote exists for ricin poisoning, the CDC says.

While ricin is a toxic, rather that a germ like anthrax, its discovery in Frist's mailroom Monday is a reminder of the letters laced with anthrax that were sent to several news outlets and lawmakers, including then Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a Democrat, in the fall of 2001.


Senator Frist's book on bioterror agents does not mention ricin. (Photo courtesy
A medical doctor and a Republican, Senator Frist has proposed legislation that would strengthen detection and prevention of bioterror agents. He has written a book, "When Every Moment Counts," that details what people should know about bioterrorism. It is aimed at the everyday American looking for more information on anthrax, plague, smallpox and other possible threats, as well as what people can do to protect themselves against them, but it makes no mention of ricin.

This is not the first reported use of ricin as a potential terrorist weapon in the United States. In March 1995, two members of the anti-tax militia group the Patriots were convicted in Minnesota of making an illegal batch of ricin which they intended to use to poison law enforcement officials.

In 1991, four members of the Minnesota Patriots Council were arrested by the FBI for a plot attempting to poison several government officials with ricin. The toxic was to be delivered as an aerosol and through skin care products.

Ricin has been used as a weapon in other countries. British police seized a small amount of ricin in January 2003 at a flat in north London and arrested seven men of North African origin. One of those arrested reportedly had trained in an al Qaeda terrorist camp in Afghanistan.

Their ricin investigation took British police to a flat in the northern English city of Manchester, where a police detective was killed during the raid. An Algerian man was taken into custody and charged with murder.

He was reported to be part of a network of Algerian extremists who are influenced by al Qaeda and possess ricin.

Recipes to make ricin were reportedly found in al Qaeda hideouts in Kabul, Afghanistan in November 2001, and traces of the substance were found at suspected al Qaeda biological weapons sites.