NIH Lab Search Yields 100-Year-Old Ricin Sample

Add it to the collection of deadly things that've turned up in government labs this summer.

Biological samples in a freezer.
Nick Smith/ALSPAC via Wikimedia Commons

Remember last week when the U.S. National Institutes of Health asked American scientists, "Pls check yer vials!"? (We're paraphrasing.) Apparently, the agency has taken its own advice to heart. In a search of its own facilities, they found forgotten bottles containing ricin--a potent poison--as well as vials of organisms that cause botulism, plague and other illnesses, the Associated Press reports. The ricin sample is estimated to be 85 to 100 years old.

The AP reports the NIH sent out a memo saying the vials were all found sealed and intact. That suggests there's nearly no risk anybody could have gotten sick from them. Still, the discovery underscores the likelihood that labs around the U.S. and the world are holding onto dangerous biological agents without knowing it.

The NIH launched its agency-wide freezer search after federal scientists discovered forgotten vials of smallpox virus in a Food and Drug Administration lab refrigerator in July. Since the start of the campaign, officially called National Biosafety Stewardship Month, federal labs have undergone elaborate-sounding searches. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy also sent out a memo to university scientists, asking them to participate. There's no legal mandate to participate, but perhaps the NIH's discoveries will spur them to.

NIH scientists destroyed the antique samples they found, the AP notes.