U. of Texas student finds substance that tested positive for ricin

Sunday, February 26, 2006

AUSTIN -- A University of Texas student found a substance in a roll of quarters that tested positive for ricin, a potentially deadly poison, but more tests were needed, officials said Saturday.

The 19-year-old student, who said she unwrapped the chunky powder in her dormitory laundry room Thursday, and her roommate were checked at a hospital for potential exposure to the poison, although neither had any symptoms, officials said. Preliminary tests for ricin came back positive Friday.

"I guess you can say I was just weirded out," said Kelly Heinbaugh, a freshman kinesiology major. "It seemed out of place ... I figured I'd rather be safe than sorry."

Because people with ricin poisoning develop symptoms within a few hours of exposure, university officials were confident all the students would be fine, said Dr. Theresa Spalding with university student health services.

Symptoms can include anything from difficulty breathing, fever, cough, nausea and sweating to severe vomiting and dehydration.

The substance was sent to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for further testing, Spalding said. The incident was being investigated by the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force. An FBI spokesman did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.

Officials said the roll of quarters had been in the students' room at the Moore-Hill dormitory for several months.

The dormitory was sanitized and inspected, and students were cleared to return, the university said.

Ricin is extracted from castor beans and can be added to food or water, injected or sprayed as an aerosol. It can be in the form of a powder, mist, pellet, or it can be dissolved in water or weak acid.

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