12.07.17

The ricin pensioner: A sad and ugly tale

Posted in Bioterrorism, Culture of Lickspittle, Ricin Kooks at 2:23 pm by George Smith

Seventy year old Betty Miller, accused of making ricin powder to use on herself after testing — unsuccessfully, fortunately — on acquaintances at her retirement home had a dog. On a sign at her apartment:

“I wish I could be the person my dog thinks I am.”

Unspecified in court are citations of mental illness (depression?) and attempts at suicide and a story in which Miller researched basic information on plant poisons on the net, apparently settling on ricin because of castor plants readily available in the home’s garden.

Miller, upon feeling ill, drove herself to the hospital where she revealed she may have been exposed to ricin. Doing that in the context of a hospital triggers the entire anti-terror national network set up over the last decade and a half, summoning everyone from the FBI and Homeland Security to an array of local responding agencies including the state of Vermont, in this case.

Information on various tests has been doled out. The presence of ricinine comfirmed. Ricinine is not ricin, but an organic compound that is viewed as a marker in castor. It can be read about in a toxicological study of ricin poisoning here.

“Ricinine is an alkaloid present in the castor bean plant (Ricinus communis) that can be used as a biomarker for ricin poisoning,” reads another analytical paper in which ricin was used in a suicide.

Although not ill now, an unnamed tenant is said to have tested positive for ricin exposure at the home where Miller is alleged to have tester her powder on others.

Currently, the case is involved in securing Miller’s cellphone so that it may be examined for possible corroborating information.

12.01.17

Ricin pensioner: A first

Posted in Bioterrorism, Crazy Weapons, Culture of Lickspittle, Ricin Kooks at 1:24 pm by George Smith

Oldest alleged ricin poisoner ever, in Shelburne, VT.

From WCAX and the FBI:

The FBI says Betty Miller, 70, of Shelburne, was arrested for manufacturing ricin in her apartment. In an affidavit Friday, officials said Miller told them she wanted to harm herself and was testing the toxic poison by sprinkling it on the food and drinks of other Wake Robin residents.

Miller told authorities she found instructions on the internet and over the summer harvested 30-40 castor beans on the Wake Robin campus. She made a total of 2-3 tablespoons of the highly toxic powder and then placed it in multiple servings of other residents’ food and beverages over a period of weeks.

The case developed when “Miller drove herself to the hospital to be checked out.” Regardless of “instructions on the Internet,” no one has been sickened the state health department became “aware of one person who probably became ill with ricin poisoning.”

The update to Arsenic and Old Lace is flabbergasting. Dementia also comes to mind.

UpdatedDementia: “Miller, 70, made her first appearance in federal court on Friday. Judge John Conroy noted that she had a ‘lengthy mental health history’ but did not elaborate.”

Miller’s collection — bottles of “apple seed,” “cherry seed,” and “yew seed” — in addition to her castor seed powder, seem to indicate an ongoing interest iin poisons. Apple and cherry seeds contain minor amounts of amygdalin, a cyanide-group-containing compound. Yew contains an alkaloid.


Roll “Ricin Mama.”

11.29.17

The mystery of pensioner ricin

Posted in Bioterrorism, Crazy Weapons, Culture of Lickspittle, Ricin Kooks at 1:35 pm by George Smith

A chin-scratcher from Vermont:

SHELBURNE, Vt. (WCAX) The FBI is now investigating poison found at a Shelburne assisted-living facility.

Police say they responded Tuesday morning to Wake Robin in Shelburne. That’s when they called the hazmat team.

In a statement, state officials say ricin was found in an apartment…

All areas where the substance was found were evacuated and the FBI is assisting in the investigation. A Wake Robin spokeswoman said all the residents are safe.

The big question for police now– how did the poison get there? And why was it there?

Given my years of experience with the subject, you can still never predict incidences having to do with this particularly unique American fascination.


In only slightly related news, Newsweek reports a Europea “terror chief” warning of ISIS’ potetial use of drones to drop viruses, anthrax, or perhaps ricin.

Bet against. Castor powder is simply not toxic enough. Dispensing small amounts of it in the air would be ineffective. More effective is its use as a psychological weapon because of beliefs on how easy something like this is alleged to be to do.

And, historically, the only terrorist to put anthrax into powder form has been an American from within the biodefense research community — Bruce Ivins.

In addition, there have been no crimes involving the spread of castor powder containing ricin. Although at one time the US had a castor seed milling industry that produced tons of oil and the powder, called castor mash, or pomace.

11.06.17

Ricin round-up

Posted in Bioterrorism, Culture of Lickspittle, Ricin Kooks, War On Terror at 3:27 pm by George Smith

Attempted suicide in Texas:

Corpus Christi fire and police responded to a condominium complex in the 14200 block of Whitecap Boulevard at about 8:30 p.m. Monday.

The call was described as a mental health issue with threats of suicide, police Lt. J.C. Hooper said.

Hooper would not disclose the man’s condition on Tuesday.

Fire Capt. James Brown said the man made the mixture by extracting oil from castor beans. He did not know exactly how he made the liquid.

“He somehow constructed ricin on his own,” Brown said. “I’m not sure on the process, but he extracted oil from the beans and ingested it.”

Corpus Christi Medical Center confirmed that a patient suspected of ingesting ricin was admitted to the Bay Area Hospital.

Confusion reigns. If the young man was unable to get castor seeds, just castor oil, there was no ricin. Ricin is present only in the mash of castor seeds. Castor oil, on the other hand, has various uses in human society.

As a laxative is one.


In Derby, England, a video (which I have not seen), connected to an ongoing terrorism trial:

A factory worker contacted a man he believed was an IS commander to pledge allegiance to IS and ask for “an order”, a court has heard.

Munir Mohammed, 36, from Derby, is on trial at the Old Bailey accused of plotting a terror attack using a homemade bomb with Rowaida El-Hassan.

The jury watched a video about making nerve agent ricin that was found at his home and they were told he exchanged messages with Ms El-Hassan about it.

They deny preparing terrorist acts.

Despite one of the accused’s alleged training in pharmacy, the level of expertise was quite low. One suspect was on video purchasing the wrong ingredient for a notional bomb plot:

Asda CCTV footage shows a suspected ‘bomb maker’ buying the wrong type of nail varnish remover for ‘terror attack’ explosives, a court has heard.

Sudanese immigrant Munir Mohammed allegedly enlisted the help of a chemist he met on a dating website in his plot to make explosives or deadly ricin poison …

The court was shown footage of the defendant visiting an Asda store near his home on December 1 last year.

Prosecutor Anne Whyte QC told jurors when Mohammed was in the supermarket, he spoke on the phone to El-Hassan who sent him a link via WhatsApp to a website advertising a bottle of hydrogen peroxide,

Ms Whyte also told the court his till receipt showed he had bought a bottle of Sally Hansen acetone-free nail polish remover.

The prosecution say he saw the word “acetone” and assumed he was buying a component of TATP explosives, when in fact he had bought the wrong product.

Despite being technology enabled — the Internet, WhatsApp — obviously no remedy for fairly obvious goof-ups.

Sixteen years on, the technical knowledge required to make bombs, exotic poisons and WMDs outside of warzones and government labs remains quite low. In inverse proportion to using a rented truck or a guns as murder weapons, so to speak.

10.23.17

Fighting to maintain biodefense labs

Posted in Bioterrorism, War On Terror at 1:59 pm by George Smith

Bioterror defense is out of fashion. Once untouchable, it’s budgeting is now open to cost-cutting so that security agencies and work responsible for building alls — immigtration — can be boosted.

From this week’s New York Times, a short piece:

The Department of Homeland Security plans to close a New York-based laboratory that has helped the city’s Police and Fire Departments develop systems to detect nuclear and biological threats, a move that some local officials fear could hamper efforts to prevent and respond to terrorist attacks.

The radiological program that the laboratory, the National Urban Security Technology Laboratory, developed with the New York Fire Department is widely considered the national standard, and technologies it has tested are in widespread use across the country. It has also worked on systems to combat drug trafficking and money laundering: Portable card readers it tested have helped officials recover millions of dollars in drug proceeds smuggled across borders using gift and other prepaid cards.

“The lab has provided an invaluable amount of information to us over the years, including helping us understand biological and nuclear threats when nobody understood that stuff,” said Gerard McCarty, the director of emergency management at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. “And they continue to provide critical support to us in researching and testing technologies.”

Curiously, the article never precisely specifies what the laboratory does. It’s web presence at the Dept. of Homeland Security is here.

A brief fact sheet indicates it is in involved in first-responder training and monitoring radiological threats through a “radiation network for cities” called REMS. It seems to be a training service for response to the “dirty bomb” threat, too, although the WMD is never mentioned by name. And here is where the New York Times erred big time: The lab isn’t about germs. It’s involved in the network to combat radiological threats and a big partner of the New York Fire Department.

A far more detailed news story shows it’s a primary defense in Manhattan, as far as training and testing goes, against the dirty bomb threat.

Its history reads: “The lab at 201 Varick St. in lower Manhattan was established in 1947 as part of the Manhattan Project and has been a global leader in studying background atmospheric radiation. It provided critical scientific research that helped make the case for the 1963 Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. which banned testing on atomic bombs in the atmosphere, underwater or in outer space.”

That’s quite a provenance, an important bit of information quite overlooked by the New York Times.

“The Trump administration has proposed closing the lab as part of larger cuts it envisions for the Department of Homeland Security’s scientific research and development programs,” reads the NYT. “The administration’s budget would cut funding for these programs by more than 18 percent, to $627 million this year from $771 million…”

For the Times, a local politician that lab’s cost, $3.4 million, was “a pittance” in the federal budget, equivalent toa rounding error. The lab employs thirty in Manhattan. It seems an accurate representation.

The cut allows “focus on the administration’s top priorities, including border security, counterterrorism, explosives and cybersecurity,” reports the NYT.

Of course, countering dirty bombs involves border security, counterorrism and explosives all rolled into one. But it’s robably safe to say the fact that terrorists have neither developed nor used a dirty bomb in the last 16 years, never in US territory, also a big factor.

What was in the news almost daily over a decade ago, often even in common hit television scripts, has faded.

08.31.17

Harvey potentially boosts vulnificus season

Posted in Bioterrorism, Culture of Lickspittle at 5:45 pm by George Smith

Although still a relatively rare hazard, the NY Times informs Harvey floodwaters could boost area Vibrio vulnficus infections:

Some Texas public health officials expect an increase in gastrointestinal problems from bacteria breeding in stagnant floodwaters that can contain Escherichia coli (E. coli), Shigella, and Vibrio vulnificus. The latter, which is present in the Gulf of Mexico, can cause terrible infections that can lead to amputations. It is harmful if swallowed or if it comes into contact with a cut.

In a report issued one month after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it had counted 24 cases of hurricane-related wounds infected with Vibrio vulnificus or its relative, Vibrio parahaemolyticus, of which six were fatal.

The danger comes from the flooding of waterways that are known to contain vulnificus in any area suggested to hurricanes.

Vibrio vulnficus — from the archives.


Most irresposible headline keyed to Harvey and vulfnicus, from Mother Jones:

If Things Weren’t Already Bad Enough, Houston Is About to Face a Public Health Nightmare
Entire neighborhoods have become contaminated and potentially toxic rivers.

A potential six cases after a disaster as widespread as Katrina in no way points to a nightmare. No link. Mother Jones provides nothing useful, in this case, other than an instance in bad headline/clickbait handwaving.

08.16.17

Vibrio vulnificus season

Posted in Bioterrorism, Culture of Lickspittle at 1:32 pm by George Smith

It’s that time of year when Vibrio vulnificus infections begin showing in the news with some regularity. V. vulnificus is the brackish water/salt water bacterium I worked on for my Ph.D. which outlined its production of a collagenolytic enzyme that might and did turn out to have something to do with the catastrophic but human illness it can cause.

From the current news wires — Vibrio vulnficus infections, mostly in Florida and along the Gulf Coast states.

Interestingly, also skin and intestinal infections caused by the presence of the bacteria in a live Tilapia fish tank at a Seattle market:

One man is in the hospital with a confirmed Vibrio vulnificus infection. He became ill July 17. His wife was also sickened, but is recovering at home. Another person, confirmed in November 2016 with an infection from Vibrio vulnificus, also ate fish from a grocery store live tank, according to the health department notice. The department described the illnesses as an outbreak.

In this case, the vibrio exists on the fish and in the tank, an experience I found to be easily possible in my research. The organism is relatively commonplace in estuarine waters and is found on the fauna. The mitigating factor is that most healthy people are not susceptible to V. vulnficus infection.

In addition, the bacterium is found in enriched presence as water temperature rises. A Tilapia tank in a market, not paid much attention to, might indeed be a good place for that.

An inection was also reported near Dunnsville in Virginia’s northern neck where a woman was thought to have acquired it while swimming in the Rappahannock river:

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that 61-year-old Jane Durvin took her grandchildren swimming on Sunday at the Rappahannock River, a day after her cat had scratched her finger.

Durvin says on Monday she was in the hospital with a swollen, throbbing hand. She says doctors diagnosed her with a vibrio infection. She says on Wednesday her middle finger turned “black and cold.” If antibiotics don’t work, Durvin’s finger may need to be amputated.

Those thought to be most vulnerable to infection are those with liver disease, a compromised immune system, or some other underlying cause associated with general infirmity.

The disease is rare, however, as noted in this newspaper piece from the Rappahannock area, dated 2000.


Vibrio vulnificus — from the archives.

Vibrio vulnficusmy doctoral work.

08.05.17

Ricin Mama gets 18 years

Posted in Bioterrorism, Crazy Weapons, Culture of Lickspittle, Ricin Kooks at 2:19 pm by George Smith

Shannon Richardson, the original ricin mama, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for making castor powder containing the toxin. Richardson mailed the powder in three letters in 2013, one of which was sent to the president.

From thw wire:

TEXARKANA, Texas – A Texas woman was sentenced Wednesday to 18 years in prison for sending ricin-laced letters to President Barack Obama and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

A federal judge gave Shannon Guess Richardson, 36, the maximum sentence under her plea deal on a charge of possessing and producing a biological toxin. She was also ordered to pay restitution. She pleaded guilty to the charge in December.

“I never intended for anybody to be hurt,” she told the court, adding later, “I’m not a bad person, I don’t have it in me to hurt anyone.”

Richardson said she thought security measures would prevent the letters from ever being opened.

Prosecutors say Richardson mailed three letters then went to police and claimed that her estranged husband, Nathan Richardson, had done it.

Richardson, who was trying to build a career as an actress had minor roles in The Walking Dead and The Blind Side.

Richardson has six children, one of whom was born after she was taken into custody in the case.

At the outset of the case she became known for a flurry of publicity pictures showing herself in a variety of fetching outfits.

Words do little to adequately describe such an unusual case. In review, then, here are pictures of Shannon Richardson and the castor powder-stained letter to the president, from “Ricin Mama:”


From the archives, Shannon Richardson.

08.03.17

Bioterrorism defense bust? Not cost-effective

Posted in Bioterrorism, Culture of Lickspittle, Ricin Kooks at 3:12 pm by George Smith

Long-term readers know the story of bioterrorism research in the United States. There was nothing that could not be funded because bioterror was inevitable and imminent. It was easy for bioterrorists to do.

Allegedly.

Fifteen years on from the anthrax mailings the US has still had only one bioterrorist.

Bruce Ivins — who was an anthrax expert from the heart of the bioterror defense establishment at Fort Detrick, Maryland.

From the Fredericksburg< Maryland, newspaper in May of this year:

A research laboratory in Frederick with few peers across the country would be closed under the proposed budget from President Donald Trump.

While the overall spending for the Department of Homeland Security increases in Trump’s budget request, that department also zeroes out funding for the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) at Fort Detrick.

The news was shared in an all-staff meeting at NBACC this week after a letter from DHS confirmed an intent to shutter the laboratory by September 2018. According to the letter, all scientific research should end by March 2018 …

The NBACC is the crown jewel in the country’s elaborate and most secret network of biodefense laboratories.

The suggestion that it be closed by 2018, considering the history of its development, is nothing less than jaw-dropping.

Still, the NBACC is just criticized for failing to live up to expectations. There has been no bioterrorism and its capability is most fallow. At the time of its genesis critics argued, unsuccessfully, that the spending earmarked for it could be served equally or better by investing it in public health.

The historical context now is that a decade and a half shows bioterrorism is exceedingly difficult to mount. And other publich health threats have emerged into fully blown crises.

Death by opioid overdose now claims 33,000 lives a year, mostly a result of the widespread presence of fentanyl, a compound 50 times more powerful than morphine.

Ricin, the poison found in castor seeds and a compound the NBACC was developed to research and analyze, cannot compare to fentanyl as an active everyday public health threat.

“About 180 people work in the facility, with $21 million in annual salary and benefits and $4.5 million in annual subcontracting spending,” reads the Fredericksburg Post.

“The cut to NBACC could reflect shifting homeland security priorities under the Trump administration — in particular, the president’s call for a barrier along the Mexico border and increased border security. Overall, the Homeland Security budget increased 6.8 percent in the 2018 budget request.”

The border wall. Anti-immigration in. Bioterrorism defense after a very long run and, fortunately, non-production, is out. The differences between 2017 and 2001 could not be more stark. The NBACC’s contract was last renewed by President Obama and it is one of seven, mostly secret, such labs in the country.


Middletown, Ohio, a city under siege: ‘Everyone I know is on heroin’ — a remarkable news story on the opioid crisis in Middletown, Ohio. I direct readers to the set of graphics in which the increase in lethal overdose incidence is mapped by county, from 2010-2015. It is an astonishing and troubling ilustration of a country, primarily the rust belt and greater northeast rotting to death before your eyes.

By contrast, the hazard of bioterrorism is nonexistent.


On the NBACC, related labs and defense spending:

The country way over-invested in bioterror defense in the wake of 9/11. Free money went out for almost a decade. No results were required and none were furnished. During the time the public was bombarded with assertions that catastrophic bioterror attacks were easy to mount and likely.

None of the claims of the threat-mongers materialized. That’s zero.

Many of our most famous bioterror defense researchers grew wealthy during a period when millions of other Americans saw their economic futures languish or go up in smoke. Infrastructure repair and spending for the public good shriveled but national security spending ballooned.

The NBACC — here.

12.30.16

2016’s favorite tune from Old White Coot

Posted in Bioterrorism, Culture of Lickspittle, Ricin Kooks, Rock 'n' Roll at 1:35 pm by George Smith

Real quote: “Our team got a kick out of the Ricin Mama song,” Assistant US Atty.

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