Lots of people don’t like Donald Trump. But few dislike him enough to mail him an envelope containing ricin.
Ricin, despite its name, has nothing to do with rice. It comes from castor beans, which is also the source of castor oil. If your mother gave you a dose of castor oil to cure various ailments when you were a child, you may have considered that toxic enough.
But castor oil itself contains no ricin. The ricin is refined from the stuff left after all the oil is squeezed out of the crushed beans.
And it can be deadly.
Experts lined up on TV to remind everyone that a single pinhead-size granule would be enough to kill you. At one time, both the U.S. and Canada considered developing ricin as a chemical weapon. It’s as deadly as sarin, the nerve gas developed by the Nazis and used in terrorist attacks in Tokyo’s subway system in 1995.
The envelope sent to Trump, containing the powder, had been mailed from Canada.
A few days later, U.S. Border agents arrested a 53-year-old Canadian woman, Pascale Ferrier, as she was crossing back into Canada. They told media Ferrier voluntarily confessed to sending six letters.
She sent one to the White House. According to court papers filed Tuesday, the package sent to the White House included a threatening letter in which she ordered President Donald Trump to “give up and remove your application for this election.”
The letter also referred to Trump as “The Ugly Tyrant Clown” and called the ricin powder “a special gift for you to make a decision. If it doesn’t work, I’ll find better recipe for another poison, or I might use my gun.”
The other letters went to Texas officers connected to Ferrier’s detention in 2019. She had been charged with illegal possession of a gun and ammunition. The case hinged on whether her travel trailer qualified as a “house” under Texas law.
Court documents allege the envelopes bore her fingerprints.
Aside from how porous the supposedly closed border between Canada and the U.S. seems to be for non-essential travellers like Ferrier, the most baffling part of this story is how a bumbler like Ferrier managed to cook a batch of ricin (in a travel trailer?) without poisoning herself.
Weapons-grade ricin requires professional laboratory processing to avoid killing its producers.
“It can be made in your house very easily,” said Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
An article in The Atlantic asserts that “the directions for making it are no more than a Google search away.” (I found detailed directions in a U.S. Patent application.) “The process takes only a few days, and it requires equipment no more complicated than a coffee filter and chemicals you can buy in a hardware store. It’s so easy that ricin mailers have not, historically been a very competent bunch.”
That description seems to fit Ferrier. Did she seriously expect the president himself to open and to read any envelope? He doesn’t even read reports by his own staff!
The story adds urgency to what used to be called “poison pen letters.”
What might I learn from all this?
First, that there are deluded and misguided people everywhere. Even in lineups at grocery stores.
Second, even the most familiar elements of life have risks, including politics and health. Trump gets death threats; so does B.C.’s Medical Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry.
We need to learn how to distinguish levels of risk. Castor beans and ricin join an extensive list of plants commonly considered toxic.
Wikipedia’s lists of potentially poisonous common plants – such as larkspur, daphne, rhododendrons, and allium — could have you tearing out half your garden.
Bitter almonds also contain cyanide. In British murder novels of 50 years ago, the sleuth frequently bent over the dead body, sniffed, and declared, “Bitter almonds! Cyanide poisoning!”
So does cassava, often called the “bread of the tropics.” It makes a coarse flour. But it can be made safe by crushing, soaking, boiling, and drying.
You’re not keen on cyanide? If you’ve eaten tapioca, you’ve consumed cassava.
Yet all these are safe if handled correctly. I grew up eating homemade rhododendron jelly, for example. But I wouldn’t risk homemade ricin.
As in so many other things, we need to find the safe middle ground between the two extremes of ignoring risks, and letting risks control our lives.
Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author
and freelance journalist.