Written by Kevin Cresswell
Ricin, contained in a package addressed to the White House, was intercepted by investigators last week. The alleged assassin was arrested a few days later.
Ricin is much easier to produce than other popular biological weapons like botulinum, sarin, and anthrax, but it is not as potent as any of those, which limits its effectiveness as a weapon. It’s not contagious, which limits its effectiveness as a tool of biological warfare.
The protein can age and become inactive fairly quickly compared to anthrax, which can remain dangerous for decades. There were experiments back around World War attempting to make wide-scale ricin weapons, packaging it into bombs and coating bullets in it, but these proved ineffective and also violated the Hague Convention’s agreements on war crimes, so the U.S. discarded ricin as weapon of war.
Ricin is a highly toxic protein that’s extracted from the seed of the castor plant, often called a “castor bean” or “castor oil bean,” despite not technically being a bean. The castor plant is extremely common; it’s used as an ornamental plant throughout the western world, prized for its ability to grow basically anywhere as well as its pretty, spiky leaves and weird spiny fruits. It’s also an important crop; the seeds are full of oil, and castor oil is used for lots of legitimate purposes. It’s a common laxative, for one thing, and since it’s more resistant to high temperatures than other kinds of vegetable oils, it’s alternative to petroleum oil in engines.
It’s considered highly dangerous because it’s still outrageously toxic and because it takes no great skill to produce. The skills involved are undergraduate-level chemistry, creating a slurry with the castor bean mash and filtering with water and then a few easily found substances such as hydrochloric acid.
It may not be a weapon of war, but for the terrorist, lone wolf or for state sponsored espionage ricin is much more effective, as a close-contact, small-target weapon by putting small particles into an aerosol spray and blasting a target or as occurred in September1978, at the height of the Cold War, by injecting it directly into the target……………
Bulgarian emigre writer and journalist Georgi Markov was 49, an acclaimed novelist and playwright in Bulgaria prior to his defection to the West in 1969. He settled in England and became a broadcast journalist for Radio Free Europe, the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), and the German international broadcast service, Deutsche Welle.
He had a large listening audience in Bulgaria. He was known for his harsh criticism of the autocratic rule of the communist party and particularly of its leader, Todor Zhivkov. His broadcasts were subsequently seen as providing an inspiration to the nascent dissident movement in Bulgaria.
In 1971, the State Security Committee (KDS, in Bulgarian) opened a dossier on Markov, title poetically, “The Wanderer”. This OPF, Operating Processing File, summarizes his case as follows: the “The Wanderer” is a writer from an enemy [to the regime] family, politically unstable. It read, “He left in 1969 for the West and refuses to return to Bulgaria. It has been established that he has close contacts with traitors and non-returnees. He has attempted to export his works to be published there, and more recently has approached the BBC to find employment there.” In fact, the “Wanderer” left legally, to visit his brother in Italy and, as far as we know now from his private correspondence, never intended to become a refugee.
In June, 1977, Zhivkov told a party Politburo meeting that he wanted Markov silenced. The task was given to Interior Minister Dimiter Stoyanov. He is said to have requested KGB assistance, presumably to avoid possible ties to Bulgaria. The mechanism of compromising and eliminating (through so-called “acute measures”) “hostile enemies” of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria were developed and “perfected” over time from late 1940s to mid-1970s. KDS has classified 1,011 people as belonging to the enemy contingent, including 70 intellectuals. The “Wanderer” file is the largest, 52 volumes.
Yuri Andropov, chairman of the KGB, reportedly agreed to help, provided that there would be no trace back to the Soviets.
Three attempts to assassinate Markov followed. The first attempt was made in Munich in the spring of 1978 when Markov was visiting friends and colleagues at Radio Free Europe. A toxin was dropped into Markov’s drink at a dinner party in his honor. The attempt to kill him failed.
The second assassination effort occurred on the Italian island of Sardinia, where Markov was on summer vacation with his family. It also failed.
The final, and successful, attempt was staged in London on September 7, 1978, Zhivkov’s birthday. Returning to work in the afternoon, at the BBC, he drove to a parking lot on the south side of Waterloo Bridge as he normally did and rode the last half a mile by bus. Having parked the car, Markov climbed the stairs to the bus stop. As he neared the queue of people waiting for the bus, he experienced a sudden stinging pain in the back of his right thigh. He turned and saw a man bending to pick up a dropped umbrella.
The man who was facing away from Markov apologized. Markov subsequently remembered that the apology was made in a foreign accent. The man then stopped passing taxi and left the scene. Though in pain, Markov boarded the bus to work. But the pain continued. Markov noticed a small blood spot on his jeans. He told colleagues at the BBC what happened and showed one friend a pimple-like red swelling on his thigh.
By the evening, Markov had developed a high fever and he was transported to hospital, where he was treated for an undetermined form of blood poisoning. His condition worsened. He was not responding to doctors’ efforts, he was severely vomiting and had flu-like symptoms. The next day he went into shock as the swelling increased around the place of injection day three he developed organ failure as his circulatory system passes the protein around the body. After three days of agony, he died on September 11th.
The preliminary diagnosis indicated that the death was caused by “septicemia, a form of blood poisoning caused by bacterial toxins, possibly a result of kidney failure.” An autopsy was performed and doctors found a tiny metal pinhead in the wound. When they attempted to extract the “pin,” a tiny pellet fell on the table. Upon a microscopic examination, it was established that the pellet had minuscule holes.
The device was taken to the UK Government Chemical Biological research establishment at Porton Down. Examination of the pellet discovered that two 0.34 millimeter holes had been drilled in the pellet, producing an X-shaped cavity. The holes were empty. After weeks of research and experimentation, in January 1979, a coroner’s inquest in London ruled that Markov had been murdered via a poison called ricin.
Ricin was an excellent choice. It can be turned into an aerosol and inhaled, it can be ingested from poisoned food or a contaminated water supply or s in this case injected. Whatever way it gets into your system, it’s highly dangerous. Ingesting it is about the least dangerous way. Injecting or inhaling requires about a thousand times less ricin to kill a human than ingesting, and that’s a very small amount indeed. An average adult needs only 1.78 mg of ricin injected or inhaled to die; that’s about the size of a few grains of table salt—which incidentally ricin resembles visually. Inhalation or injection of ricin has a different effect since the ricin proteins aren’t interacting with the same parts of the body. Death from inhalation or injection usually occurs about three to five miserable, agonizing days after contact.