Recently it was revealed that thousands of emergency response personnel from all over the country were exposed to the toxic substance known as ricin while undergoing disaster response training at the Center for Domestic Preparedness (CDP) in Anniston, Ala. The Center, which trains firefighters, paramedics and other first responders from all over the country, is part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The Center provides hands on training to first responders to enable them to better respond to terrorist attacks. Trainees were unknowingly exposed to the deadly form of the chemical, rather than a less toxic form, due to a mix-up with a vendor. Use of some form of ricin is necessary to train students on the chemical detection equipment.
Ricin is a toxin derived from castor beans and is lethal if even a small amount of the substance is inhaled or ingested. The toxin has been used in the past in terrorist acts that attempted to send ricin-laced letters through the mail.
Students may have been exposed to the toxin as far back as 2012, when the un-named vendor began shipping the toxin to CDP for training purposes. As many as 10,000 students may have been exposed to the chemical during training exercises. Thankfully, it is not believed that any students or personnel at the CDP were harmed by the exposure. The CDP asserts that safety equipment and protocols were adhered to, including storing the toxin in biosafety cabinets. However, one anonymous source has indicated that respirators may not have been used by students when handling the substance.
The lethal version of ricin is a toxin made up of two protein chains – an A-chain and a B-chain. The vendor supplied the CDP with the lethal form of ricin, ricin-holotoxin, containing both protein chains, rather than the less deadly ricin A-chain. The A-chain is poisonous, but it is not lethal without the presence of the B-chain.
Since the CDP discovered the error, it has ceased all “live fire” training activities. Internal and external investigations are being conducted into the CDP’s safety protocols. If you need more information on this subject, contact Rhon Jones or Jeff Price, lawyers in our Toxic Torts Section, at 800-898-2034 or by email at Rhon.Jones@beasleyallen.com or Jeff.Price@beasleyallen.com.
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