I used to walk through salad bars wondering if the countless people in front of me washed their hands before grabbing the tongs and repeatedly dropping them back into the food. While it's enough to make me slightly cringe, it didn't keep me away from all food bars. However, in a recent article I learned we may have to worry about our salad bars being under attack by terrorists. Really guys, salad bars?!? Yes, it was recently confirmed that the terrorist group, Al Qaeda, has now added buffet bars to the their lists of places they may strike. This action would support their new plan, "...attacking the enemy with smaller but more frequent operations" to "add a heavy economic burden to an already faltering economy." By using cyanide and ricin, they could potentially poison hundreds and thousands of people around the US. I think we've all heard of cyanide but what the heck is ricin??
Ricin is a substance found naturally in the castor bean. During the process of making castor oil, ricin becomes part of the leftover "mash." Castor oil has proven to have many uses in today's society. The oil can be found in soaps to clean that beautiful body of yours, the lipstick you apply before meeting that handsome boy, the inks you use for printing your love letters and the plastic goods you use every day. It also has a history in medicine and is used by naturopaths as a natural laxative and immune booster. How can something as nasty as ricin come from a bean that has proven to be so useful??
It turns out ricin can be transformed form a processing plant's waste to deadly weapon pretty easily. It can be used in the form of a powder or can be dissolved in water or a weak acid. This means that terrorists could potentially expose people to ricin through air, food, or water. Eeek! Once it enters a person's body, it prevents the cells from making the proteins they need to survive, eventually harming the entire body and in some cases causing death. Sadly, there is no magical antidote locked inside a vault anywhere and the CDC has reminded us that the most important factor is "avoiding ricin exposure in the first place." Thanks guys! :)
How would you know if you were exposed? Well, this depends on if the ricin was inhaled, ingested or injected. The symptoms typically occur within 6 hours and death could take place within 36-72 hours after exposure. Here's a quick rundown of the symptoms from the CDC:
Inhalation: Within a few hours of inhaling significant amounts of ricin, the likely symptoms would be respiratory distress (difficulty breathing), fever, cough, nausea, and tightness in the chest. Heavy sweating may follow as well as fluid building up in the lungs (pulmonary edema). This would make breathing even more difficult, and the skin might turn blue. Excess fluid in the lungs would be diagnosed by x-ray or by listening to the chest with a stethoscope. Finally, low blood pressure and respiratory failure may occur, leading to death. In cases of known exposure to ricin, people having respiratory symptoms that started within 12 hours of inhaling ricin should seek medical care.
Ingestion: If someone swallows a significant amount of ricin, he or she would develop vomiting and diarrhea that may become bloody. Severe dehydration may be the result, followed by low blood pressure. Other signs or symptoms may include hallucinations, seizures, and blood in the urine. Within several days, the person’s liver, spleen, and kidneys might stop working, and the person could die.
Skin and eye exposure: Ricin is unlikely to be absorbed through normal skin. Contact with ricin powders or products may cause redness and pain of the skin and the eyes.
So now what?? I'm not trying to scare you away from your favorite chinese buffet or saying you should use it as an excuse to not get that salad for lunch. I'm simply providing a little information for you to use sensibly.