Emergency responders test for ricin in a training course. Army researchers are looking to devise a test that will entail 'a glorified Q-tip' that would be exposed to a protein that changes color if it contains ricin. (Federal Emergency Management Agency)
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Researchers at Army Edgewood Chemical and Biological Center say they have been tasked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to evaluate breakthrough technology that would detect ricin, which is deadly even at tiny doses.
“It’s incredibly toxic even at low levels, and no one prior to ECBC even attempted to look at sampling technologies,” said Jason Edmonds, branch chief for aerosol sciences at ECBC’s Research and Technology Directorate.
Ricin cannot be synthesized, so researchers need to use the real thing. The CDC turned to Edgewood, the national’s premier facility for chemical and biological defense research, for specialized expertise and facilities for safely handling dangerous compounds.
“We have the advanced chemistry laboratory, and that’s where the really nasty chemicals are studied,” Edmonds said. “Due to the toxicity of ricin, that’s where those experiments will probably be handled, as well.”
Ricin, recently popularized in the public consciousness in the TV series “Breaking Bad,” is a real-life threat. The source material — castor beans — are cheap and legal, and its deadly extract can be cooked up in a kitchen.
If inhaled, ricin can cause respiratory failure, among other symptoms. If swallowed, it can shut down the liver and other organs, resulting in death. No antidote is available, though researchers are trying to develop one.
“Basically, a pin drop of it will kill you, so it’s the most deadly naturally occurring substance on earth,” Edmonds said. “Compounding that, it’s found in the seed coat of castor beans, and there’s nothing illegal about owning castor bean seeds or plants.”
This year, the The FBI investigated at least three cases in which ricin was mailed to President Obama and other public figures. Poisoned letters were sent to Obama, a U.S. senator, judges, Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., and the CIA in McLean, Va.
Although it would be difficult for an adversary to weaponize, the Army is interested in ricin because it has been identified by intelligence sources as a “known warfare agent,” Edmonds said.
“It is an agent that some states have been looking at for use in warfare, and some states are known to have programs,” Edmonds said, adding that he could not elaborate.
Edgewood in 2011 researched technology that could remove ricin from a surface and be evaluated. Edmonds published a paper last year titled “Surface Sampling of a Dry Aerosol Deposited Ricin,” which examines swab materials commonly used to sample biological threat agents from surfaces.
In the new study, Edmonds and his team would aerosolize ricin powder across a variety of surfaces and collect it using sampling technologies. They would then test the CDC analyses that are under consideration for fielding.
Edmonds envisions the test will entail “a glorified Q-tip” that would be exposed to a protein that changes color if it contains ricin.
Such a test could one day show up alongside troops’ other chemical and biological detection equipment and be used to verify decontamination of any ricin-exposed gear.
“Right now, the technologies are so premature that we can’t really do that,” Edmonds said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.