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Sunday, February 26, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Powder in dorm analyzed for ricin

The Washington Post

AUSTIN, Texas — 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 dormitory that were preliminarily identified as the deadly poison ricin.

A student discovered the powder Thursday 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 health authorities.

"I guess you can say I was just weirded out," said Kelly Heinbaugh, 19, a freshman kinesiology major from Houston. "It seemed out of place ... I figured I'd rather be safe than sorry."

After an initial positive test, other tests by the Austin-Travis County Health and Human Services Department and state authorities gave inconclusive or negative results, FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said in Washington on Saturday.

The FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force is investigating and conducting further tests.

The dormitory was temporarily closed for decontamination; students were cleared to return Saturday, the university said.

Special Agent Rene Salinas of the FBI's San Antonio office said the agency thinks the incident "is not terrorist connected."

But he said a team of WMD experts from FBI headquarters in Quantico, Va., had flown to Austin to collect samples of the powder for further testing.

Heinbaugh had not exhibited symptoms of exposure to the toxin but was asked to seek medical attention as a precaution. Her roommate also was alerted.

Since people with ricin poisoning develop symptoms within a few hours of exposure, university officials were confident all the students would be fine, said Dr. Theresa Spalding with university student-health services.

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Ricin 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 likely would be needed to be lethal if ingested.

Salinas said Heinbaugh was given the quarters by a parent and "may have had the quarters for at least two weeks" in her room.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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