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Ricin: What It Is, What It Does

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- In the wake of letters testing positive for ricin sent to President Obama and a member of Congress, many Americans are nervously asking what it is and what it does.

Ricin is a substance that is found naturally in castor beans.  It’s a waste byproduct of castor oil, and can be easily ingested when chewing raw castor beans.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, ricin can be used as a poison in the form of powder, mists and pellets. It can even cause a reaction when rubbed on the skin, and can cause death within 36 hours if inhaled.

Symptoms of ricin exposure include nausea, vomiting, respiratory problems, and seizures.  It has been used as a poison against prominent figures before, including Bulgarian journalist Georgi Markov in 1978.

The letters sent to President Obama and Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) initially tested positive for ricin, but officials said they could not confirm any information until more testing had been conducted.

Neither letter reached the lawmakers’ offices, as all mail addressed for Capitol Hill and the White House is screened off-site.

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