Beginning this past Monday, Northeast Georgia Medical Center spent time preparing for a potential biological attack. The very same kind of attack a group of Northeast Georgia fringe militia members were allegedly plotting.
Each year, the hospital dedicates 24 hours to training for a biological attack. That training wrapped up on Wednesday - the same day four elderly members of the militia group called the Covert Group were arrested by federal agents on charges of plotting attacks against the government.
Those arrested were Frederick Thomas, 73, of Cleveland, and Emory Dan Roberts, 67, Ray H. Adams, 65, and Samuel J. Crump, 68, all of Toccoa.
Crump and Adams are charged with attempting to produce and possess the biological toxin, ricin, which can be fatal if inhaled or ingested.
Kevin Matson, manager of the medical center's Environmental Safety and Regional Disaster Planning unit, said the potential threat the four militia suspects posed makes training for those situations necessary.
"If you ever have a justification for what you're doing in the middle of doing it, that was it," Matson said.
The suspects considered releasing the powder while traveling along roads including Interstates 75 and 285, which Crump said would then be spread by cars, according to the criminal complaint.
Holly Carpenter Desai, assistant professor of biochemistry at North Georgia College & State University, said that plan could have had a significant effect depending on the amount released.
"If people inhaled it and also where they derived it from ... so it kind of depends on how much they would release, but the inhalation route would definitely be the worst because such a small amount can be very toxic," Desai said.
"The inhalation is particularly bad because even at very, very low amounts, like 0.2 milligrams or so, would be enough to potentially kill someone," she added.
The militia members discussed producing 10-pounds of ricin and splitting it amongst the members in 2-pound doses to spread along roadways, according to a criminal complaint filed with the U.S. District Court, Northern District of Georgia.
While the Environmental Safety and Regional Disaster Planning unit has not specifically dealt with an issue of ricin poisoning, it has utilized its training in other environmental health concerns.
"We've had patients walk in our front door who have opened suspicious packages of white powder that's assumed to be anthrax, but many biologicals can be produced in a powder form," he said.
In the event of a biological contamination, the unit would activate its internal decontamination team. If a large-scale biological attack were to occur, a public health notification system would be activated, which would alert the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and the Department of Public Health's Division of Emergency Response.
Training for such an event involving a chemical, biological or radiological substance includes setting up a decontamination station to assist any person who potentially came into contact with the substance.
"The state guidance is to clean these patients with copious amounts of water at high volumes, but at low pressure," Matson said.
Ricin is a toxin produced from castor beans that, if ingested or inhaled, prevents the cells inside a person from making necessary proteins, leading to the death of cells.
The castor beans naturally contain ricin and can be processed in the form of powder or vapor, which can then make it easy for someone to contaminate an area.
Exposure to ricin can lead to paralysis or death between 36 and 72 hours, Desai said.
Within eight hours of inhalation exposure, though, a person could begin experiencing respiratory difficulties along with a fever, cough, nausea and tightness in the chest.
No antidote exists for ricin, so any person believed to come into contact with the poison should seek immediate medical attention to minimize the effects.
The criminal complaint states that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed Crump worked in the past for a contractor at the center.
It also states Adams previously worked as a lab technician for a Department of Agriculture agency called the Agricultural Research Service.
During meetings with Thomas, Roberts and a confidential source working with investigating agents, Roberts stated he knew someone who had access to castor beans, the criminal complaint states.
Obtaining castor beans and then extracting the ricin is a fairly simple process, Desai said.
"Castor beans are readily available. You can buy them," she said.
The four suspects are being held in the Hall County Jail awaiting a preliminary and detention hearing scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Wednesday.