Ricin Explained

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - With authorities saying several suspicious packages around the capitol have tested positive for ricin, we sought out an explanation of the poison.

"It's a protein that is made by plants, specifically the castor bean plant," says University of Alabama in Huntsville Department of Biological Sciences Chair Debra Moriarity.

But when that protein shows up on Capitol Hill, it causes problems.

Moriarity dealt with the deadly chemical in research - its intended purpose.

She says those in DC are right to be concerned.  Ricin stops your body from making proteins, shutting down your organs, and killing you.

Plus, it doesn't take much.

Moriarity says, "Basically about 1/300th of a normal aspirin size is all that it would take to be lethal to a person, so think about taking a normal aspirin, cutting it into three hundred pieces, and then basically one of those."

Ironically, the federal government keeps strict records on ricin supplies for labs that use it.

And Moriarity says it's not easy to extract the poison from castor beans.  She adds someone would need know-how to extract the poison themselves if, say, they wanted to send it on to the nation's capitol.

But we don't want to scare you into thinking some sort of super poison is making its way around our government buildings.

Moriarity points out, "Most people if they do get ricin poisoning, if they know it pretty quickly and get appropriate treatment, they will recover."