Toxins are poisonous substances produced by living organisms or synthetic processes. They can harm human beings and other animals. They are nearly always proteins that are capable of causing disease on contact with body tissue. Toxins cause injuries as varied as mild bee stings to deadly botulism. In nature, they are produced for predation and defense by spiders, snakes, jellyfish, wasps, poison dart frogs, the deadly nightshade, and honeybees. Toxins include hemotoxins, which destroy red blood cells; necrotoxins, which destroy all types of tissue they encounter (necrosis); and neurotoxins, which affect the nervous system.
Because toxins are chemical compounds, they are sometimes classified as chemical, not biological weapons. Unlike biological agents, toxins do not have the ability to reproduce and multiply. However, since they originate from living organisms, we will consider them as biological weapons here. Toxins that are not of biological origin are more appropriately named poisons.
The botulinum toxin is produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. It is among the world's most toxic substances. One type of botulinum toxin is 10,000 times more poisonous than the venom from a cobra. The toxin can be lethal in amounts as little as a billionth of a gram.
Ingestion of the food that contains the botulinum toxin results in botulism, a muscle-paralyzing disease. The toxin restrains the release of chemicals in nerve cells that cause muscle contractions, resulting in paralysis. The paralysis starts from the upper body and moves its way downward. Botulism is associated with problems with speech, vision, and swallowing. Paralysis of respiratory muscles can lead to suffocation.
The botulinum toxin acts quickly. Death occurs in one to three days in 80% of affected people.
Ricin is made from castor beans. Death can result from inhalation of an amount as small as 500 micrograms (500 millionths of a gram). Ricin can be made in the form of a powder, a mist, or a pellet. It is not affected by extreme temperatures. Natural exposure to ricin is highly unlikely; thus, it would take a deliberate effort to manufacture ricin and use it to cause harm.
Ricin works by getting inside human cells and preventing the cells from making the proteins needed to survive. Symptoms inlude fever, cough, excess fluid in lungs, severe breathing problems, and eventually death. Ricin works no matter if it is inhaled, ingested, or injected. No antidote exists for ricin. The most important factor is removing the ricin from the human body system as soon as possible.
Some accounts indicate that ricin may have been used in the Iran-Iraq war. Quantities of ricin were found in Al Qaeda caves in Afghanistan.
- "Biological Warfare." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 24 Apr 2006, 21:38 UTC. 7 May 2006, 07:20
- "Biological Weapons and Bioterrorism." TerrorismFiles.org. 07 May 2006. <http://www.terrorismfiles.org/weapons/biological_weapons.html>.
- Brain, Marshall. "How Biological and Chemical Warfare Works." HowStuffWorks.com. 07 May 2006. <http://www.howstuffworks.com/biochem-war.htm>.
- Carafano, James Jay. "Improving the Federal Response to Catastrophic Bioterrorist Attacks: The Next Steps." Backgrounder. Nov 13, 2003. pp.1-8. The Heritage Foundation.
- Dudley, William. Examining Issues Through Political Cartoons: Weapons of Mass Destruction. Farmington Hills: Gale, 2005. p9,11.
- "Facts About Ricin." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 5 Feb 2004. 7 May 2006. <http://www.bt.cdc.gov/agent/ricin/facts.asp>
- Levine, Herbert. Chemical & Biological Weapons in Our Times. USA: Franklin Watts, 2000.
- "Toxin." Wikipedia. 1 May 2006. 2 May 2006. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toxins>.