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Authorities: Powder in dorm likely not ricin

Students in Texas show no signs of poisoning, officials say

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A University of Texas student found powder in a roll of coins Thursday that initially tested positive for ricin.

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Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
Bioterrorism
University of Texas at Austin

(CNN) -- Authorities doubt that the whitish-brown powder found in a roll of quarters at the University of Texas at Austin is ricin because no one has shown symptoms of exposure to the powerful poison, an EMS spokesman said late Saturday afternoon.

"Pretty sure this is not ricin, but we're going to let the labs [confirm] that," said Mike Elliott, district commander for Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services. "No one has shown any signs or symptoms at all. With ricin, we should have seen some if there was actual exposure to the individuals."

While an initial lab test showed the substance discovered Thursday was ricin, two other tests did not, he said.

The preliminary tests were conducted Friday at a state lab, and a sample was flown to a federal government lab Saturday afternoon, FBI spokesman Special Agent Richard Kolko said.

The FBI is leading the investigation, but "at this point we have no reason to believe there is any terrorism nexus in this investigation," Kolko said earlier Saturday.

A coin box from a washing machine in the dorm was taken for testing because the student who discovered the suspicious powder found it in a roll of quarters being used to do laundry at about 2:30 p.m. Thursday.

Elliott said at a news conference that the quarters were given to the student by the student's mother, who got them prewrapped from the bank.

The student reported it to the university police department, which notified the school's office of environmental health and safety, which collected the powder and sent it to a state laboratory, the school said in a written statement.

"It was immediately cleaned up, using appropriate decontamination procedures," an official said.

Final tests were being conducted at an Army laboratory in Fort Detrick, Maryland, said Courtney Boeln, spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

No one at the university who may have been exposed has shown any symptoms, which would usually appear within six to eight hours, said Dr. Adolfo Valadez, medical director for the Travis County Health and Human Services Department.

"The exposure risk, we feel, is low," he said.

Valadez speculated that because of the humid weather in Austin, the powder clumped, further mitigating the risk if it turns out to be ricin.

The residents of the Moore-Hill dormitory, about 390 people, were moved to another dorm, a school official said.

Highly toxic

Ricin is a potent poison. As little as 500 micrograms of ricin, which would be about the size of the head of a pin, can kill an adult.

In an infamous 1978 incident, Georgi Markov, a Bulgarian writer and journalist who was living in London, was killed when a man attacked him with an umbrella that injected a ricin pellet under his skin.

Also, according to the CDC, "Some reports have indicated that ricin may have been used in the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980s and that quantities of ricin were found in al Qaeda caves in Afghanistan."

Ricin is made from the waste "mash" produced when castor oil is extracted from castor beans.

If inhaled, ricin would cause difficulty breathing, fever, cough, nausea and chest tightness within a few hours.

Heavy sweating might follow and fluid could build up in the lungs, resulting in low blood pressure and respiratory failure, perhaps leading to death.

If swallowed, ricin could cause vomiting and bloody diarrhea, resulting in severe dehydration and low blood pressure.

It also may cause hallucinations, seizures and blood in the urine. Within a few days, the person's liver, spleen and kidneys might stop working, resulting in death. No antidote for the poison exists.

The CDC said it was not involved in the investigation. Boeln said the Texas Department of Health has not requested CDC assistance.

Sophomore Rachel Herbert was visiting a friend Friday night at the dormitory when the initial test results came back positive and officials ordered the building evacuated.

"It's a little terrifying," she told a reporter.

CNN's Kevin Bohn contributed to this report.

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