Let’s test your war-on-terror IQ. What is said to be the nastiest poison in the hands of the Osama bin Laden brigade? Ricin. Now for the trick part. How many people have been killed by ricin in the last five years? Zero!
In terms of numbers-based risk assessment—not fear-mongering—ricin is insignificant. Despite inescapable news of Al Qaeda stooges spotted with traces of it in London, an urgent stateside warning from the FBI, and testimony that in the past it has been in the arsenal of Saddam Hussein, ricin has never been employed as a weapon of mass destruction in the way that our national corps of armchair bioterror experts insist that it can be.
How does one poison a crowd with ricin? No one knows. Yet it is exquisitely dangerous because it is said all one has to do is grind up some castor beans at home.
While many poisons common to college chemistry labs could be used by terrorists, ricin remains the celebrity. For instance, nails and ball bearings carried by Palestinian suicide bombers have sometimes been coated with the less potent warfarin, yet the rat poison has never received the same notice.
Ricin mania probably came about due to its well-publicized use as the weapon Bulgarian secret police used to kill dissident Georgi Markov during the Cold War. In fact, the news mythology surrounding it has made it impossible to determine what drives terrorist desire for the material—first-hand training in toxicology or media gossip that it’s a weapon of mass destruction.
In any case, a few thousandths of a gram of ricin can be bought from Sigma Chemical of St. Louis for anywhere from about $60 to $200, depending on formulation. Yet the purest form is still not so cheap to buy nor so easy to render that it’s amenable to mass production by a handful of twentysomething Al Qaeda men of indeterminate scientific skill.
Nevertheless, in ricin fear—exaggerated or not—there is money and professional gain. A search for the poison on Google this week turned up an ad for the mother of all gas masks, enjoying prime real estate on the list of results. And even though this meets a merely theoretical need, a University of Texas Southwestern Medical School researcher has produced a ricin vaccine in mice. This achievement, it is said, would lead to more trials using aerosolized ricin—in effect, the development of a chemical weapon to protect us from the same thing we’re supposed to be very worried about.