Analyses of Powder in Texas Dorm Are Inconclusive

Authorities police the Moore-Hill dormitory at the University of Texas in Austin, where a student found a substance that is being tested for ricin.
Authorities police the Moore-Hill dormitory at the University of Texas in Austin, where a student found a substance that is being tested for ricin. (By Kelly West -- Associated Press)
By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 26, 2006

AUSTIN, Feb. 25 -- The FBI sent a team of experts on weapons of mass destruction Saturday to collect samples of a powder found in a University of Texas student dormitory that were preliminarily identified as the deadly poison ricin.

A student discovered the powder Thursday afternoon in a roll of quarters she was using to operate washing machines in Moore-Hill Hall. She notified dormitory officials, who brought in university police and local health authorities.

After an initial positive test, other tests conducted by the Austin-Travis County Health and Human Services Department and state authorities gave inconclusive or negative results, FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said from Washington Saturday. The FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force is investigating and conducting further tests. The dormitory was temporarily closed for decontamination, and the 400 students living in Moore-Hill Hall were notified of the results at a late-night briefing at a nearby dorm. Other than the laundry room and a portion of the second floor, Moore-Hill was reopened to students at 12:30 a.m. Saturday.

Special Agent Rene Salinas of the FBI's San Antonio office said the agency believed the incident "is not terrorist connected." But he said a team of WMD experts from the FBI laboratory in Quantico, Va., had flown to Austin to collect samples of the powder for further testing. Other federal agents "are trying to determine the exact origin of this material," Salinas said, noting that additional testing would be completed over the weekend.

The student who found the powder had not exhibited any symptoms of exposure to the toxin but was notified of the test results and asked to seek medical attention as a precaution. Her roommate was alerted also.

Ricin does not occur naturally but is made from castor bean processing waste, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site. It can be manufactured as a powder, a mist or a pellet, or it can be dissolved in water or weak acid. Ricin has some limited medical uses, but as little as 500 micrograms -- about the size of the head of a pin -- can kill an adult if inhaled or injected. A larger amount would likely be needed to be lethal if ingested. The deadly poison, which kills human cells by preventing them from producing needed proteins, may have been used in the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s, according to the CDC. Some quantities of ricin also were found in al-Qaeda caves in Afghanistan.

Salinas said the student was given the roll of quarters by a parent and "may have had the quarters for at least two weeks" in her dorm room. Theresa Spalding, of University Health Services, said the student, whose parents live in Houston, opened the roll on Thursday and used some of the coins to wash clothes. She returned to her dorm room to get more coins and tore open the rest of the roll. A white powder came out, along with the rest of the quarters.

"I don't think it was a lot [of powder], but it was enough to get over her computer table," Spalding said.

The student's call to authorities prompted a "white powder alert," for which procedures have been outlined at the university since the 2001 anthrax scares in Washington and New York, Spalding said. The student's room was sealed off, and the area around the laundry room machine she was using was decontaminated. When the preliminary test showed a positive ricin result, the laundry room was sealed off and the entire dorm was decontaminated.

University spokeswoman Rhonda Weldon said the school had had several "white powder calls" since 2001, but that such alarms had decreased in recent years. This is the first time an alert had resulted in a positive identification of a toxin. "But let me be clear that at this point, we have no students exhibiting symptoms, including those who reported this," she said.

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