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Report: Florida lab supplied ricin to Anniston’s CDP

Homeland Security investigating mix up with deadly toxin

Center for Domestic Preparedness

The Center for Domestic Preparedness, seen in a 2010 file photo. (Bill Wilson/ The Anniston Star/file)

A representative of a Florida lab that reportedly sold the deadly toxin ricin to a federal lab in Anniston by mistake says it has never sold the less-deadly version the lab meant to buy.

The mixup, discovered in November and first reported by The Star later that month, led the Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston to unwittingly train thousands of first responders using the deadly version. The center, operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has since stopped training with ricin, and says no one was harmed. Officials have said they are investigating, but have declined to name the private vendor they say sold the ricin to the CDP by mistake.

USA Today on Thursday reported the vendor was Florida-based Toxin Technology, citing the account of a former employee. An official with that company on Thursday declined to confirm for The Star whether it had supplied the CDP, but said Toxin Technology has never sold the less-deadly version of ricin the Anniston lab intended to buy.    

Bill Rose, manager of Toxin Technology, said by phone Thursday that is the company’s policy not to disclose the names of its customers, but that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had contacted the company about the matter after the Anniston center discovered the problem. That agency, known as the CDC, manages the the Select Agent Program, which oversees the possession, use and transfer of biological agents and toxins by laboratories around the country.

The Center for Domestic Preparedness trains firefighters, emergency medical staff and other first responders from local agencies around the country to deal with disasters and attacks involving chemical and biological agents. The facility where its trainees work with live agent, known as COBRA, since 2011 had used toxic ricin, officials with the center acknowledged in November. Officials said the Anniston lab had ordered non-toxic ricin, and in subsequent replies to questions from The Star blamed its vendor for the error.

Rose said that to his knowledge his lab has never sold the less-deadly “A chain” version of ricin. Toxin Technology has only ever sold the toxic, “A and B chain” ricin, he said.

Rose, who said he’s worked at the Florida company since September 2011, said the lab buys the toxic A and B chain ricin in liquid form from Vector Laboratories, then resells that ricin in powdered form to customers, always labeling it as the toxic version, with a label that reads “RCA60.”

FEMA spokeswoman Alexa Lopez, in a message to The Star on Thursday, wrote that “during the course of the ongoing inquiry, we believe there are additional measures that could have been taken and we have requested the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General investigate this matter.”

It was unclear Thursday how the CDP confused the toxic version of ricin for the less toxic. Questions sent to a CDP spokeswoman were not immediately answered Thursday afternoon.

Prior to 2011 the Anniston facility only trained in the detection of chemical warfare agents such as GB, known as sarin, and VX. Ricin was added to those classes in 2011, according to the CDP. While the agency has antidotes for the chemical agents, there is no antidote for the toxic ricin.

While civilian first responder students at the Anniston center wore full protective suits and respirator masks during their training, lab workers there who prepared the ricin had no such respirators. Experts told The Star in November that without respirators the workers’ lives were in jeopardy. The CDP has said the workers handled the ricin in a biosafety cabinet, designed to control exposure.  

The CDP and an expert believe that the toxic ricin used in the training bays was disposed of properly, but it was less clear Thursday how the agency disposed of the lab equipment used by workers who mixed the powdered ricin into slurries.

A former worker at the Anniston lab,  who asked not to be named because he feared retribution and is considering a lawsuit against the government, told The Star in messages this week that used vials and paper towels saturated with the deadly ricin were placed in a trash can in the lab that was lined with biohazard waste bags, labeled to identify the potentially toxic material inside.

Contract workers would later pick up those bags and carry them away, the former worker wrote.

Questions to a CDP spokeswoman Thursday on how that contaminated material was disposed of weren’t immediately answered.  

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