On Monday, two pieces of mail that were delivered to the Pentagon tested positive for traces of ricin, a highly poisonous substance that occurs naturally in castor beans. According to CNN, one envelope was addressed to Secretary of Defense James Mattis and another was to Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John Richardson. The FBI has launched an investigation into the situation, because ricin is often used as a chemical weapon in terrorist attacks.
The reason why these letters are under scrutiny is because ricin is poison. That means, it's very unlikely that people would come in contact with the substance accidentally, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). So, it's still unsettling to think about the fact that it could just be floating around — as a powder, mist, pellet, or acid — in the mail system.
So how are seemingly innocent beans so toxic? Ricin is made from waste materials that occur when castor beans are made into castor oil, according to the CDC. When a person comes in contact with ricin, it essentially attacks a person's cells, which prevents them from making new proteins and staying alive, according to the CDC. Depending on how the ricin was ingested, typically symptoms appear 4 to 12 hours after exposure, and can lead to death between 36 and 72 hours of exposure.
If ricin is inhaled in the form of a powder, people often experience severe respiratory symptoms like coughing, nausea, difficulty breathing, fluid in the lungs, and tightness of the chest, according to the CDC. On the other hand, if ricin is swallowed, people usually vomit and have diarrhea. Over the course of several days, this can lead to liver, spleen, and kidney failure and in some cases death. And if people simply touch ricin, it can cause their skin to turn red or result in itching and pain.
At the moment, there is no cure or antidote for ricin poisoning, so the CDC urges people to just avoid exposure at all costs. Although some people do survive ricin poisoning, it can have long-term health effects and damage to organs. But if by some freak happening you are in contact with ricin, you're supposed to get away from the area where it was, remove your clothing (and throw it away), and wash your skin with tons of soap and water. Of course, you should get medical attention ASAP.
The somewhat good news about this particular ricin outbreak is that ricin poisoning isn't contagious, so it can't spread from person to person through contact, according to the CDC. Still, ricin is no joke, and it's important to take this little bean very seriously.