An envelope addressed to President Donald Trump at the White House contained a substance that federal investigators identified as the lethal substance castor bean, an official told The New York Times. It is unclear when the envelope was intercepted, if it was before it reached the White House post office or if it was already in the presidential residence when the danger was identified, but investigators believe it was sent from Canada, according to the official.
Federal investigators are working to track who sent it and determine if other envelopes have been sent through the postal system.
Castor, which is part of the waste produced when castor oil is made, has no known antidote.
In 2011, four Georgia men were arrested and subsequently sentenced to prison for conspiring to simultaneously spread the toxin in five cities in the United States, against federal and state officials. That same year, US counterterrorism officials said they were increasingly tracking the possibility of al Qaeda using ricin in attacks against the United States.
Two years later, a Mississippi man sent letters containing castor bean to President Barack Obama and a Republican senator in an attempt to frame a rival. The letters were intercepted at the sorting facility.
Actress Shannon Richardson was sentenced to 18 years in federal prison for sending castor bean letters in May 2013 to various people, including Obama and Michael R. Bloomberg, the mayor of New York at the time.
Castor beans contain a toxin that is seven times deadlier than cobra venom, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. These grains are normally processed to obtain castor oil, whose best known application is as a laxative, although it is also used in the production of lubricants for large engines, paint, plastics, shampoo or cosmetics.
Castor comes from the waste from oil production and has been used experimentally in medicine to kill cancer cells, according to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In addition to being disseminated by post, as was done with anthrax, also in the United States, after the 9/11 attacks, castor bean can be dissolved in water to contaminate beverages – whose taste does not modify – or other substances intended for human consumption. They can also be made ready to snort or inject.
With this toxin, the Bulgarian journalist Georgi Markov was assassinated in London in 1978. The Soviet secret services used it.
The main risk – and the reason it attracts terrorists – is that it is used in operations designed to create mass panic. For example, in February 2004, ricin powder was found in the Senate mailroom in Washington.