The spate of alerts Wednesday at the Capitol came a day after news that the letters to Wicker might have contained ricin. Two preliminary tests at an offsite mail-screening facility in suburban Maryland indicated the presence of ricin; two other tests were negative.
Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer, a former second in command of the Washington Metro Police Department, urged calm and caution for Senate workers in dealing with mailed or delivered materials.
“All mail and commercial packages processed through the Senate mail facility have undergone rigorous testing through protocols established following previous anthrax and ricin attacks at the Senate,” Gainer said in a statement. “Mail delivery in Washington, D.C., offices will continue this afternoon – this mail was processed in advance of receipt of the suspicious ricin mailing, has been successfully inspected and tested, is completely safe and will be delivered by uniformed Senate post office employees.”
He warned that staffers shouldn’t open sealed envelopes and should accept items only from Senate post office employees or government couriers with government-approved identification.
Ricin, derived from castor beans, can be easily and inexpensively produced. Law enforcement and terrorism experts say it’s more effective on individuals than as a mass weapon. It takes only a small amount to kill a human, and there’s no specific test or antidote.
Ricin poisoning isn’t contagious. Touching the substance would cause little harm. But eating after touching ricin could be harmful.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, unintentional exposure to ricin is highly unlikely. Death from inhalation or ingestion, if not quickly treated, could come within 36 to 72 hours, the CDC says.