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A federal lab just discovered some ricin that had been missing for about 100 years

The US's federal labs keeps finding dangerous things in unexpected places
The US's federal labs keeps finding dangerous things in unexpected places

The nation's federal laboratories have had an embarrassing summer as far as safety is concerned.

It all started with an anthrax mishap at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in June. Then forgotten vials of smallpox turned up at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in July. Then there was news of an accidental mix-up of bird-flu with a less deadly flu strain at the CDC. Luckily, there are no reports of anyone getting sick from any of these.

And the latest news seems like one more embarrassment. The NIH has just discovered a long-forgotten sample of deadly ricin poison in one of its laboratories, according to the AP. On the surface, that sounds bad. Ricin is deadly and can kill people if inhaled or ingested — it's not the sort of thing that should be left lying around.

But as it turns out, this discovery is actually excellent news.

Why is that? After the NIH discovered vials of smallpox that had been forgotten for decades in June, it said that it would do a systematic inventory to make sure nothing else dangerous was hiding in its labs. Now we know that they're actually looking. And that's a good thing. A lot of those older samples weren't stored according to current safety standards. That means that they could pose a danger to both laboratory workers and even the general public. So rooting them out is beneficial for everyone.

Some of the things the NIH has found so far have been astounding. The ricin was in a box with bacterial samples from 1914. And the NIH estimates that the sample itself is 85 to 100 years old.

The ricin was discovered along with four other dangerous agents — including plague, botulism, and tularemia bacteria. The latter two are classified by the CDC as highest risk bioterror agents. Plague can be in that category, too, depending on the type of plague infection. The fifth sample contained Burkholderia pseudomallei, which causes a rare tropical disease.

Surveyed fridge

Look, ma. No smallpox. Or ricin. Or plague. That green sticker means that this laboratory has done its job and searched this fridge for forgotten dangerous samples. (Susannah Locke/Vox)

Ricin is a deadly poison that's naturally found in castor beans. There's no available antidote. The toxin has been involved in several dramatic attacks, including the umbrella-enabled assassination of Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov in 1978 and the tainted letters sent to President Obama and New York City Mayor Bloomberg in 2013. You may also remember it from Breaking Bad.

That wasn't the only recent news. The AP says that the FDA, which was involved in the smallpox find in July, reported discovering the food-poisoning bacteria Staphylococcus enterotoxin in a laboratory that wasn't approved to handle it.

As federal labs inventory their specimens, it's likely that we may hear of more finds in coming weeks.

Below is an annotated timeline of the federal labs safety scandal. To see the next step, click the right arrow. We will update this timeline as new events unfold.

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