Deja Vu: A Letter Sent to Capitol Hill Just Tested Positive for Ricin

In an eerie if incongruous reminder of the anthrax attacks after 9/11, a preliminary test appears to indicate that an envelope sent the office of Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker contained the poisonous protein ricin. A suspect may already be in custody.

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In an eerie if incongruous reminder of the anthrax attacks after 9/11, a preliminary test appears to indicate that an envelope sent to a U.S. Senate office contained the poisonous protein ricin. Politico and CBS report that the recipient was Mississippi's Roger Wicker. Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana suggests that someone may already be in custody.

The letter was received at the Capitol's remote mail processing facility. After a routine test identified the presence of ricin on the envelope, CNN reports that it was tested two additional times, confirming the presence of the poison each time. CBS disputes that:

Despite saying it had been tested three times, CNN's Dana Bash also indicated that the letter was being sent to Maryland for further testing.

CBS also reports that the perpetrator may already have been arrested.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said senators were also briefed by Sergeant at Arms Terence Gainer about the Wicker letter.

Landrieu told reporters that the senators were told the suspected letter writer writes a lot of letters to members and added she believes authorities have someone in custody.

Ricin is a natural component of castor beans. In late 2011, after four men were arrested in Georgia for loosely plotting terror attacks involving the poison, the Los Angeles Times explained what makes the compound so deadly.

It can be formed into a powder, mist or pellet, or even added to water, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Indeed, even the symptoms of ricin poisoning might not raise an alarm until it's too late. They begin benignly enough — respiratory distress, followed by nausea, coughing, fever and, ultimately perhaps, death.

It then somberly notes: there's no known antidote. As noted by Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center suggests it's not quite that easy.

Oral ingestion most commonly occurs through consumption of castor beans, although ricin can be dissolved in water or a weak acid. Ricin may also be delivered through injection, as in the case of Georgi Markov; however, that method is limited by proximity to the target. As a biological weapon, ricin powder or mist would most likely be aerosolized, resulting in poisoning via inhalation.

Markov was a Bulgarian dissident who, the CDC notes, "died after he was attacked by a man with an umbrella. The umbrella had been rigged to inject a poison ricin pellet under Markov’s skin."

In the aftermath of the Boston bombing, the announcement quickly brought to mind the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, when media personalities and elected officials received letters containing anthrax. Those attacks were ultimately linked to a scientist named Bruce Ivins. Ivins committed suicide in 2008, leaving his involvement in the attacks uncertain.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.