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Letters potentially laced with ricin could prompt scares in Utah, officials fear

Published: Wednesday, April 17 2013 7:24 p.m. MDT

Tony Stowe, a hazardous materials specialist with the Salt Lake City Fire Department, demonstrates what his crew does when called out on a suspicious powder, Wednesday, April 17, 2013. He said the likelihood of ricin being mailed to a residential location is slim to none. (Peter Samore, Deseret News) Tony Stowe, a hazardous materials specialist with the Salt Lake City Fire Department, demonstrates what his crew does when called out on a suspicious powder, Wednesday, April 17, 2013. He said the likelihood of ricin being mailed to a residential location is slim to none. (Peter Samore, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Fire officials fear that ricin scares could increase in Utah after the poison appears to have been found in letters sent to President Barack Obama and a Mississippi senator.

Tony Stowe, a hazardous material specialist with the Salt Lake City Fire Department, said his crew responds to about a dozen such calls a year.

"In large doses, it (ricin) can be quite lethal," Stowe said.

Ricin is derived from the castor bean plant, is relatively easy to make and can be deadly in very small doses.

"Ricin has toxic byproducts that are harmful to the body,” Stowe said. “The way they react with the body is the inhibition of your body creating proteins."

Without the proteins, cells die. Eventually, this is harmful to the whole body and death can occur, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

Tony Stowe, a hazardous materials specialist with the Salt Lake City Fire Department, demonstrates what his crew does when called out on a suspicious powder, Wednesday, April 17, 2013. He said the likelihood of ricin being mailed to a residential location is slim to none. (Peter Samore, Deseret News) Tony Stowe, a hazardous materials specialist with the Salt Lake City Fire Department, demonstrates what his crew does when called out on a suspicious powder, Wednesday, April 17, 2013. He said the likelihood of ricin being mailed to a residential location is slim to none. (Peter Samore, Deseret News)

Ricin has the similar color and consistency of flour. When inhaled or ingested, fever, cough, shortness of breath, chest tightness and low blood pressure can occur within eight hours. Death can come between 36 and 72 hours after exposure. There is no antidote.

The Utah Highway Patrol said the U.S. Postal Service screens all mail destined for the state Capitol. All of that mail bears a special mark that indicates it’s been properly screened.

"If any letters or packages are hand-delivered at the state Capitol, they are turned away, and those people are instructed that it does need to go through the post office,” UHP Cpl. Todd Johnson said.

The recent ricin scares could cause people to panic, but fire officials said they shouldn't be too worried. Stowe said high-level targets are more susceptible for receiving these types of letters.

"Be aware the likelihood of this coming to a residential location is slim to none,” Stowe said.

The recent ricin cases bring back memories of the anthrax scares in 2008. Utah was one of a dozen states where governors were sent packages containing a suspicious white powder. That led to the evacuation of then-Gov. Jon Huntsman's office. In all the cases, the powders turned out to be nontoxic.

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