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Toxins as Weapons


James M. Madsen

, MD, MPH, U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense (USAMRICD)

Reviewed/Revised Jan 2023

Hundreds of toxins are known. However, it is difficult to make large quantities of most toxins and hard to distribute toxins widely enough to affect many people. Thus, most toxins are more suited to assassination than to creating mass casualties. Only four toxins are considered high-threat agents by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • Botulinum toxin

  • Epsilon toxin from Clostridium perfringens

  • Ricin toxin

  • Staphylococcal enterotoxin B

Of these, only botulinum toxin is classified among the highest-priority agents. Epsilon toxin from C. perfringens is mainly of historical interest as an agent reportedly developed by Iraq in the 1980s.

Botulinum Toxin

Botulinum neurotoxin blocks one of the types of chemicals that nerve cells use to send signals to other nerve cells and to muscles (neurotransmitters). Because the particular signaling chemical, acetylcholine, does not work properly, people become weak or paralyzed. Typically the paralysis starts at the top of the body about 12 to 36 hours (range 2 hours to 8 days) after exposure to botulinum neurotoxin and extends downward. The toxin does not enter the brain, so thinking is not affected.

Diagnosis is made based on the person's symptoms.

Doctors give an antitoxin by vein. The antitoxin acts only against toxin circulating in the blood and not against toxin already attached to nerve cells. Thus, antitoxin prevents worsening of symptoms and signs but does not help relieve them and becomes progressively less effective as symptoms and signs develop.

Ricin and Abrin

Ricin comes from beans of the castor plant, and abrin comes from jequirity, or rosary pea (see Plant and Shrub Poisoning: Castor and jequirity beans Castor and jequirity beans Only a few commonly grown plants are very poisonous, but many others have less serious toxic effects. Generally, poisoning is unlikely unless a plant is highly toxic or large quantities are... read more ). Although ricin has been injected in assassination attempts, mass casualties would probably involve inhalation of an aerosol form of the toxin.

Symptoms of ricin and abrin poisoning vary by route of exposure. Within 4 to 8 hours of inhalation exposure, people develop cough, respiratory distress, and fever. Many organs are progressively affected over the next 12 to 24 hours, culminating in respiratory failure and often death.

Diagnosis is made based on the person's symptoms.

No specific antidote or antitoxin is available, and treatment focuses on supporting the person's breathing.

Staphylococcal Enterotoxin B

Staphylococcal enterotoxin B is one of seven enterotoxins (toxins acting in the intestine) produced by the bacteria called Staphylococcus aureus. Staphylococcal enterotoxin B Staphylococcal Food Poisoning Staphylococcal food poisoning results from eating food contaminated with toxins produced by certain types of staphylococci, resulting in diarrhea and vomiting. This disorder can be caused by... read more Staphylococcal Food Poisoning is responsible for staphylococcal food poisoning when ingested. Mass casualties could result from deliberate contamination of food but also from inhalation of an aerosol form of the toxin.

Symptoms typically occur 1 to 12 hours after ingestion and 2 to 12 hours (with a range of 1.5 to 24 hours) after inhalation. After initial flu-like symptoms of fever, chills, headache, and muscle aches, subsequent symptoms depend on the route of exposure. Ingestion causes nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea for 1 to 2 days. Inhalation causes cough, chest pain, and often nasal irritation and congestion. Eye inflammation (conjunctivitis) can result from contact of the aerosol with the eyes. Inhalation can rarely cause death. In survivors, fever may persist up to 5 days and cough for 4 weeks.

Special laboratory tests may help doctors confirm the diagnosis.

Doctors aim treatment efforts at relieving the person's symptoms. No specific antidote or antitoxin is available.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy of the Department of Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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