Feb. 29 (Bloomberg) — Las Vegas police found vials of the deadly toxin ricin and its key ingredient yesterday in a local hotel room, two weeks after its occupant was rushed to the hospital in critical condition.
“We don’t know if the guy was manufacturing the ricin or not, and that’s our concern,” Captain Joseph Lombardo said in a televised press conference today. “He’s not a suspect at this point.”
Authorities declined to identify the patient, other than to say he was middle-aged.
Police and the FBI, which is aiding the inquiry, said they don’t suspect terrorism. Ricin is also used in experimental cancer treatments. Castor beans, the key ingredient of the toxin, were found in the Extended StayAmerica hotel room, police said.
Federal officials have warned police departments since the Sept. 11 attacks to look out for ricin, which could be deadly in the hands of terrorists. It may be used to contaminate air- conditioning systems, drinking water or lakes, the FBI has said.
Las Vegas Deputy Police Chief Kathy Suey told the press conference that ricin was found in the hotel room after a friend or relative of the man came to clean it. It had been vacant since he called an ambulance Feb. 14, complaining of breathing trouble, and was hospitalized, she said.
Police took custody of several vials containing the poison, which is thousands of times more lethal than cyanide. Six people were taken to a hospital as a precaution, but none fell ill, Suey said.
“This is the just the beginning of what is obviously going to be a complex investigation,” Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Detective Bill Cassell said in a telephone interview today.
In 2004, ricin was found in a U.S. Senate mailroom, shortly after letters were sent to the White House and a South Carolina post office threatening to spread the poison. No one was injured.
Traces of ricin were also found five years ago in a London apartment during a British-based counterterrorism raid.
Ricin is part of the waste “mash” left after processing castor beans, the source of castor oil. The toxin often takes the form of a powder, and can be inhaled or mixed with water, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Once in the body, ricin halts the production of vital proteins in the cells, which eventually die. Used in cancer patients, the poison has shown promise in reducing tumors.
A lethal dose for an adult would be about twice the size of a pinhead. Symptoms could include breathing difficulty, vomiting and liver and kidney failure within a few days. There is no antidote.
Some reports suggest ricin was used in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, according to the CDC.
In 1978, Bulgarian defector and journalist Georgi Markov died in London after a man attacked him with an umbrella tip that injected a poisonous dart into his skin, the CDC said.
While the castor bean is rarely grown as a U.S. crop, about 1 million tons are produced yearly worldwide, mostly by India and South America.
“Given the beans’ abundance, it wouldn’t be that difficult to obtain relatively pure ricin, and it wouldn’t take a lot of sophisticated biochemical equipment,” said Robert Brey, chief scientific officer at DOR Biopharma Inc.
The Ewing, New Jersey-based company is working to develop a vaccine for ricin exposure that could be stockpiled by the U.S. government.
How interesting that it isn’t terrorism. Obviously somebody wants us to think that this unfortunate gentleman was merely making homemade cancer treatments that went terribly wrong. Yeah, that’s it. Or maybe he had a really bad rodent infestation.Something tells me that if I were found to have vials of ricin in my possession, I would have already had my rights read while in the hospital.
Hat Tip: Ed Mahmoud at GCP.