WASHINGTON (WUSA9) -- Now that several suspicious letters have been found in the past two days, some laced with ricin, you may be wondering exactly what ricin is and how it has been used.
WHAT IS RICIN?:
According to the CDC, "Ricin is a poison found naturally in castor beans. If castor beans are chewed and swallowed, the released ricin can cause injury. Ricin can be made from the waste material left over from processing castor beans." Ricin can be a powder, a mist, or a pellet, or dissolved in water or weak acid, according to the CDC.
Castor beans are typically used to make castor oil, and ricin is a by-product of that process, according to the CDC.
HOW IS RICIN USED?:
The CDC notes that ricin has been used experimentally in medicine to kill cancer cells, but that it "would take a deliberate act to make ricin and use it to poison people."
Once inside the cells of a person's body, it stops cells from making the proteins they need, says the CDC. Then the cells die, which harms the whole body and may lead to death.
According to the CDC, in 1978, Bulgarian journalist Georgi Markov died after he was attacked by a man with an umbrella in London. The umbrella was configured to inject a poison ricin pellet under Markov's skin.
The CDC reports that the US military experimented using ricin as a warfare agent in the 1940s, and it may have been used in the 1980s in Iraq and more recently by terrorist organizations.
HOW TO TELL IF YOU WERE EXPOSED TO RICIN:
The major symptoms can very but the CDC reports that the first symptoms of ricin poisoning by inhalation may occur as early as 4- 8 hours and as late as 24 hours after exposure. If ricin was ingested, then initial symptoms can show in less than 10 hours.
If you inhaled ricin: according to the CDC, likely symptoms are difficulty breathing, fever, cough, nausea, and tightness in the chest. Heavy sweating and fluid building up in the lungs (pulmonary edema) could also be symptoms. The skin might turn blue. Low blood pressure and respiratory failure may also occur.
If you ingested ricin: If you swallow a significant amount of ricin, then you would likely experience vomit and diarrhea (that may become bloody), then severe dehydration and low blood pressure, according to the CDC. Other signs or symptoms include seizures and blood in the urine. Days later, your liver, spleen, and kidneys might stop working.
If ricin makes contact with your skin or eyes: The CDC says ricin is unlikely to be absorbed through normal skin. Ricin powders or products may cause redness and pain of the skin and the eyes. The CDC says if you touch ricin on your skin and then eat food or put your hands in your mouth, you may ingest some ricin.
WHAT TO DO AFTER YOU ARE EXPOSED TO RICIN:
The CDC says there's no antidote for ricin. If you're exposed to it you must get it off of you or out of the body as quickly as possible. Medical care could include helping you breathe, getting intravenous fluids, medications to treat conditions, flushing your stomachs with activated charcoal, or washing out eyes with water.
Death from ricin poisoning could take place within 36 to 72 hours of exposure, says the CDC. The CDC explains that ricin poisoning cannot be spread from person to person through casual contact, but if you come into contact with someone who has ricin on their body or clothes, you could become exposed to it.