“The amount of ricin Ian Davison produced could have killed thousands,” wrote someone for the BBC over the weekend.
A picture is worth a thousand words in this case.
Accompanying the piece here was a photo, reproduced above, of neo-Nazi Davison’s castor powder mess in a jar.
General common sense would tell most people that a mess in a jar isn’t a weapon of mass destruction. However, when reporters write from a script – one in which they’ve looked up the theoretical lethality of ricin on the Internet, common sense gets tossed out the window.
A good time ago, the US had mills which processed castor seeds for their oil. In fact, Castrol, originally marketed as a fine racing engine oil was castor oil.
“For many decades the fine-scented castor oil flavoured the racing paddocks everywhere from Assen to the Isle of Man, from Brooklands to Monza,” reads the official history of Castrol at the company site here.
The byproduct of castor oil production is castor mash, or powder. It is obviously not a weapon of mass destruction, although it contains ricin.
In the United States, use of castor was also widespread.
A newspaper article from late last year reads:
Over the course of a decade, from 1959 until 1970, Plainview was considered the hub of domestic castor bean production with the local office of Baker Castor Oil ultimately contracting for 70,000 acres of production annually.
However, the crop’s success ultimately worked against it with practically no significant domestic production recorded after 1972. Since that time, the United States has been forced to turn to producers in India and Brazil to supply the majority of its needs.
Plainview Mayor John C. Anderson has a unique perspective on the local castor industry, having served as general manager of Baker Castor Oil’s local operations from August 1959 until December 1970.
“During most of that time Baker was the dominant player in the United States with about 75 percent of the castor oil production,” Anderson recalled last week, “and the Plainview facilities accounted for virtually all of that.”
The oil derived from castor beans is used in a vast array of products, ranging from paints, varnishes and lacquers to lipstick, hair tonic and shampoo. Since it does not become stiff with cold nor unduly thin with heat, castor oil is an important component in plastics, soaps, waxes, hydraulic fluids and ink. It also is used to make special lubricants for jet engines and racing cars, and during World War I, World War II and the Korean War it was stockpiled by the federal government as a strategic material.
Bayonne, N.J.-based Baker Castor Oil Company already was a major importer and processor when it embarked on a plant breeding program in the late 1950s centered in Plainview in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Baker needed a dependable domestic supply of castor beans since the government was building up its strategic reserve,” Anderson explained. “Baker at the time was having to primarily rely on what was being harvested by hand in Brazil and India from plants growing wild.”
Not only were there concerns about production and price volatility, the imported oil had a tendency to turn rancid during transport, Anderson said. A domestic source would reduce transportation costs while substantially improving quality. And, Plainview was a logical choice since the harvested crop could be shipped to crushing facilities on both East and West Coasts.
One observes from the history of castor seed milling in the US and elsewhere, that the product is not particularly hazardous to workers. These companies did not produce large quantities of dangerous waste. Quite the contrary, they were very green industries.
But somehow this history has been long forgotten. In its place — a nonsensical one in which a toxic protein in the castor plant is always alleged to easily furnish white survivalist neo-Nazi kooks and others with a weapon of mass destruction.
What the nuts who grind castor seeds to a mush can’t get through their heads (and — by extension — the news media which reports on them) is that castor powder containing ricin is not a practical weapon. It degrades, becomes rancid. It might poison a dog if they put it in the pet food. Or it even might accidentally sicken the maker, if he somehow mysteriously consumes it.
The grinding of castor seeds into powder is neither a refinement nor a purification of ricin.
Another discussion of ricin as a threat is here.
Sampling its most relevant part:
On the world wide web page of an American animal feed and fertilizer company, it said, “In 1857, “H.J. Baker & Bro., Inc., [built] the Baker Castor Oil Company in Jersey City, New Jersey.” “… Of great importance [was castor seed oilcake] … This material [was] the first fertilizer product offered …”
This being the case, castor seed oilcake and seeds containing ricin would have had to travel the roads of the country. If one searches further, reference to it can be found in municipal codes for the transporting of “hazardous materials” via trucking. Castor seed oilcake is a material that does not require a 24-hour emergency phone hotline listed on the shipping manifest. In the Texas city of Laredo’s municipal code, the materials, referred to as “castor bean,” “castor meal,” “castor flake,” and “castor pomace” are things deemed of the same hazard, or lack of it, as “dry ice,” “fish meal,” “fish scrap,” “battery powered equipment,” “battery powered vehicle,” “electric wheelchair” and “refrigerating machine.”
Castor seed powder was frequently used as fertilizer in this country. In the periodical called Timely Turf Topics, the publication of United States Golf Association Green Section, an issue from November 1942 reported that the country was using over 80,000 tons of castor seed mash as fertilizer annually. The Golf Association Green Section periodical was devoted to providing information to golf green managers on the maintenance of beautiful grass turf. During World War II, nitrates were diverted for the war effort, necessitating use of alternative fertilizers, of which castor seed mash was one.
In the November 1941 issue of Timely Turf Topics, the association grapples with the problem of controlling mole crickets in southern golf courses.
“It is reported that turf in some sections of Georgia and Florida has just experienced the worst infestation of mole crickets in a number of years,” reads the issue. “Attempts to eradicate them from turf by the use of well-known poison bait as well as by treatments with arsenate of lead, ground tobacco stems and castor meal have not been successful in several localities this fall.”
The point to be made is that people once worked with large quantities of the grind of castor seeds in this country without dropping like flies. Castor beans were considered a renewable resource, used as a source of lubricant and fertilizer. Even golf course gardeners worked with castor mash, noting that it wasn’t so hot as an insecticide, being ineffective against mole crickets.
There has been a collective loss of memory of such practical information in this country. In its place, emergency news erupts a couple of times of year in which ricin and castor seeds are discovered in someone’s possession, with everyone near it having to be decontaminated and their clothes thrown into a bag for disposal. Photos of hazmart workers in plastic isolation suits multiply. The real-time imagery is of the kind one sees in sci-fi movies devoted to various biological end-of-the-world themes.
But back to the BBC article on neo-Nazi Ian Davison:
The discovery of ricin at the home of Ian Davison convinced detectives that the white supremacist was a “serious terrorist”.
Found in a jam jar, the cloudy liquid had been extracted from castor beans.
An amount roughly equivalent to a grain of salt is enough to kill an adult, making it 1,000 times more poisonous than cyanide.
Experts admit the toxin is relatively easy to produce, but police are unsure exactly how Davison intended to use it.
The ricin discovered at his house in Burnopfield, County Durham, could theoretically have been used to kill thousands.
Common sense thinking left town for good years ago. And nothing seems capable of bringing it back.
Davison and his father were given ten year sentences.