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Ricin Toxin: A Military History

Ricin Toxin: A Military History

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Published by Reid Kirby
An Article I wrote for the US Army Chemical Review on the military history of Ricin toxin, with emphasis on our First World War experience and attempt to weaponize.
An Article I wrote for the US Army Chemical Review on the military history of Ricin toxin, with emphasis on our First World War experience and attempt to weaponize.

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Published by: Reid Kirby on Nov 21, 2010
Copyright:Public Domain


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1April 2004
he source of ricin, the castorbean, has been a well-known poison since ancienttimes. Ingesting two to four seedsinduces nausea, muscle spasms,and purgation—eight seeds leadsto convulsions and death. Castor oil(which makes up over half theweight of these seeds) has beenused in ancient India, Egypt, andChina as a cathartic and to treatsores and abscesses. Today, castoroil is an important industrialfeedstock for numerous manufac-turing processes and also is usedas a lubricant and a laxative.The castor bean plant (
) is a 4- to 12-foot shrub-like herb originating in SoutheastAfrica, but it has a worldwidedistribution. It is cultivated through-out the United States as an orna-mental plant. Carl Linnaeus, the18th century botanist, derived theplant’s taxonomic name from theLatin word
(tick) becauseof the appearance of its seeds andthe word
(common) forits distribution. The term ricin wascoined in 1888 by Herman Still-mark to name the toxic proteina-ceous substance he extracted fromthe castor bean for his aggluti-nation experiments.
This plantholotoxin was later used in PaulEhrlich’s famous immunologyexperiments.
Since the late 1980s, there has been a growing concern that terrorists might adopt chemical and biological weapons. Ricin (Agent W)
 —due to its simplicityin extraction, availability of materials, toxicity, and a few would-be attemptsto acquire it—has been a prominent counterterrorism concern. This concernstems mostly from the toxicity of ricin and partially from its little-understood military history.
 By Mr. Reid Kirby
As a tool in science, ricin hascontributed to early immunology,the treatment of cancer, and theunderstanding of cell biology. Itsmilitary history began during WorldWar I as America’s first ventureinto biological warfare, but ricinfaded into obscurity after WorldWar II when it was surpassed bythe much more potent botulinumtoxin A (Agent X)
. Eventually,ricin would gain notoriety as anespionage tool of assassination andwould often be mentioned by po-tential terrorists. This brief militaryhistory of ricin illustrates thesynergy required for a workableweapon system and the ethicalissues it posed. Ricin proved diffi-cult to weaponize for an aerosoleffect, and where it was not diffi-cult to weaponize, it represented anethical dilemma.
World War I
uring World War I, the U.S.Bureau of Mines studiedthe offensive potential of ricin at the American UniversityExperimental Station. Two weapon
Ricinus communis 
, the castorbean plant
concepts were considered: thesimplest approach was coatingshrapnel and bullets with ricin tocreate a skin effect; the morechallenging concept was a “dustcloud” that produced a lung effect.At the time, limited experimentalwork on animals demonstratedthat it was possible to weaponizericin. Interestingly, the averagetime it took for an animal to die wassomewhat longer than is reportedin contemporary studies. This earlywork also identified the maintechnical difficulty in weaponizingricin: its thermal sensitivity. It wasfound that the heat generatedwhile firing the coated bulletsdestroyed a significant
amount of the agent.
The recommendation at thetime was to investigate ricin-coatedshrapnel or bullets immediatelybut hold off on a dust cloud weaponuntil an antitoxin could be madeavailable. This posed the ethicaldilemma mentioned earlier: a lungeffect from ricin was an accept-able form of chemical warfare, butricin-coated shrapnel and bulletswere considered to be an act of poisoning and thus were ethicallyprohibited.
Ricin-coated shrapneland bullets were only to be used inretaliation
(lex talionis,
the law of retaliation) against the Germans if they used a similar “poisoned”weapon.By the end of the war, re-searchers could only weaponizericin in coated shrapnel and bulletsor by using a dust cloud for ablinding-eye effect
(the lungeffect from a dust cloud could notbe confirmed). Though four manu-facturers had been identified andthe U.S. Army desired to havethree field trials with ricin, timeand ethics prevailed, and the warended without a usable weapon.Given its atrocious reputation,researchers felt that all records onricin should be kept secret ordestroyed.
World War II
arly in World War II,England and Canada beganwork on ricin for use in4-pound bursting bomblets.
TheFrench also had an interest in ricinbut, like early U.S. investigators,felt that it was too dangerous tostudy without first having anantitoxin.
The U.S. military’sinterest in ricin resurfaced around1942 as a project of the NationalDefense Research Committee
and led to chamber and field trialsat Dugway Proving Ground, Utah,in 1944.
These efforts differedfrom those of the previous war inthat only a lung effect was beingconsidered, and considerable ad-vances had been made in thescience of aerosols.
However, thethermal sensitivity of ricin re-mained the major technical hurdle.Theoretically, there is about1 gram of pure ricin per kilogramof cold-pressed castor bean cake.Given the U.S. production of castor oil during the war, 1,000 tons
Cutaway of a 75-millimetershrapnel shell intended todeliver a dry-type agent (prob-ably a vomiting agent).
of ricin could have been producedannually. The agent’s most basicform was an amorphous masstermed “crude” ricin, and it wasessentially the form with whichWorld War I investigators hadworked. To get the agent into thisusable aerosol form, it needed tobe added to a volatile solvent(fluidized) or milled into a finepowder (micropulverized).Fluidization was successful,but it seriously diluted the amountof agent that could be employed.Micropulverization of a dry-typeagent was the preferred method,and ball milling (the commonmethod of the time) was usedfirst. During the milling, the heatfrom the friction was too extreme,and the agent was almost entirelydestroyed, so an alternate methodof milling and drying had to bedeveloped. Spray-drying the agentand using a specially designedchilled-air grinder produced anagent that had lost little toxicity.This was the formulation that wastermed
 Agent W 
throughout fieldtrials.There were three field trials atDugway Proving Ground in May1944. Two used a bursting munitionresembling the standard 4-poundbiological bomblet, and anotherused a tail-ejecting sprayingmunition. The tests were conductedin the G-2
Canyon Test Site on thenorthern slope of Granite Peak.Katabatic winds blew the aerosolcloud over 50, 100, 200, and 400sampling arcs. The trials indicatedthat ricin was only lethal as long asthe cloud was still visible to theunaided eye.A pilot manufacturing plantproduced 1,700 kilograms of ricin.Planners designed a $127,000full-scale plant for producingmicropulverized crude ricin, which

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