Workers in a government lab in Anniston who unknowingly handled the deadly poison ricin did so without wearing respirator masks, something that experts say could have put their lives in great danger.

It came to light two weeks ago that since 2011 workers at the Center for Domestic Preparedness, instead of using a non-toxic strain of the biological agent ricin, were using the deadly version, which has no antidote and was shipped to the lab by mistake.

One of those workers at the Chemical,  Ordnance, Biological, and Radiological unit, known as the COBRA facility, in Anniston, who asked not to be named because he feared retribution and is considering a lawsuit against the government, said lab workers were not given safety equipment such as respirator masks or protective suits typically used by workers handling such toxins.  

The CDP, operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, trains first responders to operate in the wake of disasters or attacks involving chemical, biological or nuclear materials. A CDP spokesman earlier this month confirmed the CDP’s COBRA facility had used the deadly version of ricin.

The spokesman, in a written statement sent Thursday, confirmed that no respirators were used, but said operations with ricin instead were conducted inside a “biosafety cabinet,” a device designed to allow people to work with dangerous materials while controlling exposure.

“Students and staff preparing, working with, or training with ricin were fully protected at all times,” read the statement from Dorian Champan, the CDP spokesman. The operations with ricin were conducted in accordance with guidelines developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Champan wrote. Five workers have been responsible for preparing the ricin slurry used in training, he wrote.

Since 2011, all 11 of the CDP’s orders for the compound from an outside vendor resulted in shipments to the COBRA facility of the toxic version, according to Chapman.

Civilian first responders who train at the facility to detect the nerve agents GB and VX and biological toxins such as ricin and anthraxwear full personal protective equipment, including respirator masks. The lab workers who mixed the deadly form of ricin from a powder into a slurry wore only microfiber shoe coverings and lab coats over street clothes, nitrile gloves and safety glasses, but no respirator masks or other protective gear, according to the former employee who spoke to The Star.

“It’s dumb luck,” the former worker said of the fact that none of the lab workers had died. “There’s no antidote. I was hugging my kids with those same clothes on.”

“No one handles something supposedly harmless the same way they would handle something lethal. I’ve seen that stuff sitting on the counter before,” the former employee said, speaking of the ricin.  

The CDP has on hand antidotes for the two nerve agents used at the COBRA facility, but no such antidote exists for ricin, which is why the CDP had requested the non-toxic version, according to the former worker, adding that the mixup should have been caught before workers handled the toxic ricin.

“Even mom-and-pop shops” have checks and balances in place when ordering products to ensure what’s been ordered is what is received, the former worker said.

Since learning of the problem earlier in November the CDP has stopped use of ricin in training at the facility.

Chapman, spokesman for the CDP, in a message to The Star on Nov. 23, wrote that the agency ordered the proper ricin but was sent the toxic version by the vendor.

“The Center for Domestic Preparedness followed all proper procedures to obtain non-toxic ricin from the vendor,” Dorian wrote. “Both the purchase document and the legally required ‘Intended Use Document’ accompanying the purchase clearly stated that the request was for the non-toxic form of ricin.”

It remained unclear Thursday where the CDP got its ricin. Chapman directed questions about the identity of the vendor to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Center for Domestic Preparedness is evaluating the vendor and its own procedures and safety measures, Chapman wrote.

“The safety of our students and staff has always been, and will remain, our top priority,” Chapman wrote.

A deadly poison

Ricin, a poisonous compound extracted from castor beans, kills cells in the body by blocking their production of protein, potentially leading to death, according to the CDC.

Dr. Bob Emery, a professor at University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, who specializes in safety issues associated with disaster preparedness, said by phone Tuesday that skin contact with the toxic strain of ricin isn’t likely to cause death, but inhaling or ingesting it can kill.

If a ricin spill on a table was cleaned improperly and a worker touched the table and then touched his mouth, the toxin could have been ingested, potentially leading to death, Emery said. Emery said the lack of respirator use by those lab workers troubles him most, though the use of the biosafety cabinet Chapman described would be a good practice.

“Given that there is no antidote for ricin poisoning, it is prudent practice to always handle such agents as though they were a firearm — always assume it’s loaded and handle it accordingly,” Emery said. “It would have been prudent to use respirators.”

Emery himself traveled to the COBRA facility several years ago to help teach classes there, and said “the notion of being unknowingly exposed is always emotionally troubling. The thing to do is stop using it, follow up with those who could have been exposed and be open and transparent with your findings.”

Raymond Zilinskas, director of the chemical and biological weapons nonproliferation program at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey in California, said by phone Tuesday that the powdered form of ricin is so toxic that an amount “so small that you cannot see it” if ingested or inhaled is enough to kill a 150-pound person.  

Zilinskas agreed with Emery, and said that at a minimum, handling ricin, especially in the powdered form, should be done while wearing a respirator.  

Experts say there’s isn’t a great deal of research into potential long-term effects of ricin effect on humans, but that the toxin typically works quickly.

Dr. Dan Brown, a professor of animal science at Cornell University and an expert on toxins, said that although ricin is a serious toxin, if a person shows no symptoms of ricin poisoning relatively quickly, long-term adverse health problems are unlikely.

A larger problem

Those experts noted, however, that the Anniston facility’s problems are one of several among federal agencies that in recent years have mishandled deadly substances and put lives at risk.  

Zilinskas recalled learning in 2015 that for more than a decade the U.S. Army’s  Dugway Proving Ground Lab in Utah had unknowingly shipped improperly inactivated anthrax samples to other labs in 50 states and in other countries. He had previously visited that Utah lab.

“I thought they were working in very strict conditions, and that that would never happen,” Zilinskas said. The Army disciplined 10 civilians and two officers found responsible for the Dugway Proving Ground Lab problems, according to news accounts.

Problems of improperly shipped live agents were found to be more widespread than just the Utah lab, however. An August report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that between 2003 and 2015 there were 21 incidents of both government and private labs shipping live biological agents which were thought to have been inactive.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2014 shut down two CDC research labs in Atlanta over the mishandling of live anthrax that the New York Times reported were shipped to outside labs, exposing 75 scientists who were not wearing proper protective gear to the deadly bacteria.   

In 2014 decades-old vials of live smallpox and various other deadly pathogens were found in a storage room inside the  National Institutes for Health campus in Bethesda, Md.

Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.