Mail Screening Diverts Suspected Ricin Letters


Mail Screeners Divert Suspected Ricin-Tainted Letters from Reaching President Trump

Luckily, earlier this month, when envelopes were sent to President Trump and top military leaders contained the natural ingredients used to make the deadly poison Ricin, they did not reach their destination. They were identified and isolated at a dedicated mail screening facility first. Describing the incident, the FBI has indicated that potentially hazardous chemicals were also found but have not provided additional details.

Why Choose the Mail as a Channel to Harm President Trump?

The President is flanked by Secret Service when in public, locations for his appearances are checked in advance, and visits to the White House are invitation-only and carefully screened.  An attacker assumes that an innocent-looking package can easily get mixed into the mountain of mail that the President, like many public officials and business leaders, receives every day.

Are Biological Threats Like Ricin on the Rise?

Ricin is a biotoxin, on the CDC’s list of biological threats. Similar to Anthrax, it could be weaponized to cause illness, death, fear, societal disruption, and economic damage. As discussed in previous Insights articles, Bill Gates has warned that “a biological attack by terrorists that could kill up to 30 million people is increasingly likely due to the ease with which pathogens can be created and spread.”

Just three years ago, both President Obama and Mayor Bloomberg of New York were sent Ricin-tainted mail. Again, those letters did not reach their destinations thanks to skilled mail screeners.

What are the Effects of Ricin?

Ricin is incredibly deadly. The poison prevents human cells from creating proteins, causing them to die. As more cells die, the entire body shuts down. The poison comes from the husks of castor beans, the seeds of the castor oil plant. When castor oil is created from the plant in order to be used in pharmaceuticals and manufacturing, Ricin is created as part of the waste.

If mail handlers were to open a package filled with Ricin, they would be in danger unless they operated with Personal Protective Equipment, ideally in a cleanroom environment. Ricin in the form of a fine powder can be suspended in air, similar to anthrax, and could be inhaled.

Ricin poisoning could be deadly for those who encounter it directly, but it would not be contagious to others.

How Could Ricin be Identified by Mail Screening?

A manual screening process in a standard mailroom or an inexperienced screening team would have no capacity to differentiate a Ricin-filled package from any other.

  • Ricin – or the castor beans of the plant – would not have a particular odor to alert mail screeners to its presence.
  • It wouldn’t leave a residue on a package, cause it to become wet or otherwise stand out.

Only an advanced main screening process that includes CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive) detection would have a chance to identify Ricin within a letter or package. Advanced tools that determine the level of Ricin bioactivity will dictate the emergency response plan and waste removal plan.

What are the Types of Biological Threats?

  • Bacteria (i.e. Anthrax, Plague and Smallpox)
  • Viruses (i.e. Smallpox or Ebola)
  • Biotoxins (i.e. Ricin or Botulism)
  • See the full CDC list here

Who is at Risk?

While attacks on high profile targets like politicians make the news, we know all too well that the mail is used to send dangerous materials to all types of targets. If Ricin, or even castor beans, were to reach a food protection facility, a hospital, a school or a business, many more people would be at risk.

Every mailroom team should be aware of possible biological threats and a plan in place to respond.

Steps for mailroom safety include:

  • The correct equipment to screen for biological threats
  • Personal Protective Equipment
  • Trained staff
  • A written plan

If this is not possible, consider outsourcing mail screening to experts or sending mail to a third-party facility.

Thank you to all the mail screeners who put themselves at risk to keep us safe.

Stay safe,
Soma K. Martin and your SoBran SafeMail Team