A man who stayed in a Las Vegas hotel room where ricin was discovered on Thursday has been hospitalized in critical condition since Feb. 14 with symptoms consistent with exposure to the deadly toxin, Las Vegas police said Friday.
The man’s identity, age and hometown were being withheld on Friday as investigators tried to determine why ricin, as well as castor beans from which is it derived, were found in a room at an Extended Stay America hotel one mile west of the Las Vegas Strip.
Deputy Chief Kathleen Suey said the man had been staying in the room where the ricin was found for an unknown length of time and was leasing the room when the substance was discovered. A man, said to be a relative or friend of the sick man, had gone into the room to retrieve the patient’s belongings when he found the vials of white powder and showed it to the hotel’s manager, Deputy Chief Suey said.
Police were called by the hotel. The man had been hospitalized on Feb. 14 with respiratory distress but did not indicate to doctors that he may have been exposed to ricin, so the health district and police were not notified of the prospect, she said.
An evacuation ensued and seven people were taken to local hospitals for treatment, though they were released when they showed no signs of exposure, Deputy Chief Suey said. The hotel was reopened early Friday after public health officials determined they had found and removed all the ricin.
The patient has not yet been questioned and is believed to be unconscious, she said.
F.B.I. national spokesman Richard Kolko said the incident did not appear to be related to terrorism “based on the information gathered so far.”
Still, Deputy Chief Suey said police could not explain why the ricin was present or what its intent might have been.
Strip resort executives were watching the developments carefully. A weekly scheduled conference call between police and heads of casino security was coincidentally held on Friday morning and included a statement from officials that the ricin incident was “very contained and isolated,” said Harrah’s Entertainment spokesman Gary Thompson, whose company owns the Rio All-Suites Casino-Resort and Caesars Palace. Both are within a mile of the Extended Stay America hotel involved.
Laboratory tests conducted on Friday confirmed Thursday’s initial tests that found the substance was ricin, a deadly poison derived from beans of the common weed castor.
“Ricin has no medical uses other than cancer research,” said Captain Joseph Lombardo, head of the Homeland Security unit for Las Vegas police. “An individual citizen, other than being involved in cancer research or cancer prevention, would not have any legal means or proper means of having that.”
Dr. Nicholas J. Vogelzang, director of the Nevada Cancer Institute, said none of his researchers use the substance and nobody involved with the institute has stayed at the hotel in recent months, if ever.
“We’re not doing anything here with it,” Dr. Vogelzang said. “It’s not a currently active treatment,” he said, explaining that most cancer researchers have abandoned experimenting with ricin because it is so dangerous to people.
That the incident occurred off the Strip was a slight relief for resort owners.
“Yeah, I suppose you could say that, but I think it’s a shame that it happened at all,” Mr. Thompson said. “It’s alarming that this material is out there and somebody is ill.”
Ricin can be extremely lethal. As little as 500 micrograms, or about the size of the head of a pin, can kill a human, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site.
This is the second major public health scare in Las Vegas this week. On Wednesday, the Southern Nevada Health District sent out as many as 40,000 letters to people who may have been exposed to hepatitis C at a local clinic after it was discovered the clinic was reusing dirty syringes as standard procedure since May 2004.
The scale of the potential problem prompted the nation’s largest public notification on the matter in U.S. history. – NYT