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Frist: Ricin confirmed, but no illness reported

A police officer stands in front of the closed Dirksen Senate Office Building.
A police officer stands in front of the closed Dirksen Senate Office Building.

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CNN's Jeanne Meserve reports that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist says the poison found in an office building is both terrorist and criminal.
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Frist says 'everybody is fine' after preliminary tests indicate traces of ricin inside his office's mailroom.
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CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta gives details on the deadly toxin ricin.
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Centers for Disease Control & Prevention

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- No one has reported any ill effects from the substance found in a Senate office building mailroom that tests have identified as the deadly toxin ricin, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has said.

Congressional and law enforcement sources said the substance was found Monday afternoon on an automatic mail sorter in a mailroom in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. The mailroom serves Frist's office.

Frist said Tuesday tests have identified the substance as ricin -- a deadly poison with no known antidote, derived from the castor bean. The discovery prompted 16 employees to go through decontamination procedures.

"Based on what we know, usually, injury occurs in the first four to eight hours," said Frist, R-Tenn., a physician.

No symptoms of ricin poisoning have been reported, he said, "and I'm happy to report everyone's doing fine."

A specialized Marine unit that deals with chemical and biological agents was deployed to Capitol Hill Tuesday in response to the incident.

It marks the first time since the 2001 anthrax attacks that the unit -- called the Chemical Biological Incident Response Force, or CBIRF -- has been deployed.

Capitol physician Dr. John Eisold said there is no diagnostic test to indicate whether someone has ingested ricin, and doctors would monitor those exposed for any sign of symptoms. Meanwhile, lawmakers insisted that the incident would not hinder their work.

"As we speak, the Senate is in session," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

"We're debating the highway bill, and that work will go on. Terrorist attacks, criminal acts of this kind, will not stop the work of the Senate or the Congress, as we have important work to be done."

Federal authorities said Tuesday they have found no indication of international terrorism in the discovery. A criminal investigation is under way.

Meanwhile, law enforcement sources told CNN Tuesday that a letter addressed to the White House was intercepted in November after it was found to contain ricin.

That letter is now part of a federal investigation, the sources said.

The full Senate convened as usual Tuesday morning, but the Dirksen, Hart and Russell

Senate office buildings were closed after the discovery of the toxin, forcing the cancellation of some committee hearings. Frist said he would like to see the buildings reopen in "days and not weeks."

"It's a disruption, and it's a real inconvenience ... and we will get them open as soon as we can," Frist said.

A tiny amount of ricin can be deadly. But unlike anthrax, it is very difficult spread through the air. Filters in the Dirksen building's ventilation system have shown no sign of the substance, and "We believe it was contained to the [mailroom] area itself," Frist said.

Police surround the Dirksen Senate Office Building, where ricin was found Monday.
Police surround the Dirksen Senate Office Building, where ricin was found Monday.

Authorities have been unable to trace the substance to a specific letter or envelope.

Daschle, whose office was the target of an anthrax attack in October 2001, said earlier that lawmakers would "successfully confront this challenge."

"We're probably in a better position today to confront these challenges than we were two years ago," he said earlier Tuesday.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said additional tests need to be conducted, and more test results were expected Tuesday afternoon.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has notified doctors in the area of possible symptoms of ricin poisoning, and CDC Director Julie Gerberding said a sample of the substance will be sent to her agency for testing. (Interactive: Investigating the discovery)

State and federal authorities in Connecticut also are investigating a suspicious letter, addressed to the Republican National Committee, with white powder on it. Kevin McDonough, assistant postal inspector in charge of the Boston division of the U.S. Postal Service, said testing Tuesday came up negative for ricin, but additional tests are being performed to determine exactly what the powder is.

McDonough said the letter was a business reply envelope, typically used in fund-raising, addressed to the Republican National Committee.

Ricin was found in a letter last October at a postal handling facility in Greenville, S.C., and the FBI has offered a $100,000 reward in the case. The typewritten letter -- which is part of the same federal investigation as the letter addressed to the White House -- was addressed to the Department of Transportation and demanded that changes in truckers' sleep/work schedules not be implemented. (Full story)

The FBI has in the past notified state and local law enforcement about the possible use of ricin by terrorists.

Jonathan Tucker, a chemical and biological weapons expert from the U.S. Institute of Peace, said ricin is 200 times as potent as cyanide although not as deadly as anthrax. It cannot penetrate the skin unless the skin is broken, and heat is deadly to the toxin.

But if inhaled or injected, according to the Centers for Disease and Prevention, one milligram of ricin can kill an adult. (Interactive: What is ricin?)

If inhaled, ricin can cause death in 36 to 48 hours from failure of the respiratory and circulatory systems. If ingested, it causes nausea, vomiting and bleeding of the stomach and intestines, followed by failure of the liver, spleen and kidneys, and death by collapse of the circulatory system.

Injected ricin immediately kills the muscles and lymph nodes near the site of the injection. Failure of the major organs and death usually follows, the CDC says.

In one of the most notorious Cold War assassinations, Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov was killed by a poison dart filled with ricin and fired from an umbrella in London in 1978.

-- CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr, Correspondent Jason Carroll, producers Christy Feig, Ted Barrett, Mike Ahlers and Maureen Madden, Associate Producer Chris Strathmann and Assignment Editor Jonathan Wald contributed to this report.

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