MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A federal terrorism response center in Alabama mistakenly used the lethal form of the toxin ricin as it trained thousands firefighters, paramedics and other emergency responders during the last five years.
The mix-up happened at the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston, Alabama, which trains first responders to deal with emergencies involving chemical, radiological, and biological hazards.
No students, who wear protective gear in the exercises, were reported harmed, but FEMA has asked the Department of Homeland Security's Inspector General to investigate how the toxin came to be used in the exercises.
FEMA spokeswoman Alexa C. Lopez said a form of ricin that is safe for humans is supposed to be used in the training. She said staff last month discovered an "ongoing discrepancy in the documentation related to the type of ricin being provided." Staff ordered the safe version, but it appeared a supply vendor has been providing the lethal form of ricin to the center since 2011, she said in an email.
The Anniston Star first reported the potential exposure to trainees.
Approximately 9,600 first responders trained with chemical or biological agents at the center's Chemical, Ordinance, Biological, and Radiological facility during that time.
"However, it's important to note that we have no indication that any students were exposed or harmed. During training, students work with several chemical and biological agents, and use protective measures appropriate for the most dangerous agents," Lopez said.
Ricin, a toxin from the seeds of the castor oil plaint, is lethal to humans in even tiny doses, said Dr. William Rushton, an assistant professor and a medical toxicologist in the department of emergency medicine at the University of Alabama Birmingham.
"It's a very dangerous substance. When you get it in your body, it causes all of your organs to shut down," Rushton said.
The toxin has two protein chains — an A chain that can cause cell damage and a B chain that allows the toxin to penetrate cell membranes. Both chains must be present for ricin to kill, Rushton said.
Lopez said the center ordered the A-chain-only form of ricin. That form is safe for humans but will still respond to detection equipment as students learn to detect and respond to an emergency involving ricin.
"CDP ordered A-chain, the less toxic strain. ... All CDP Intended Use Declarations clearly state that we were requesting Ricin Chain A," Lopez said.
USA Today identified the vendor as Toxin Technology of Florida.
Bill Rose, manager of Toxin Technology, told The Associated Press that he could not discuss clients but said all shipments were correctly labeled as the lethal form of ricin. He said the company only sells the more lethal form.
"All shipments of products from our company from January 2012 thru present have been reviewed and were found to accurately reflect the contents listed on the shipping documents," Rose wrote in an email.
FEMA has set up a web page with information about the situation. Students who trained at the center may also submit questions through a link on that page: cdp.dhs.gov/cdp-use-of-ricin