Until recently, there wasn’t a way to test human samples for ricin exposure. Doctors could only track the symptoms –fever, cough, difficulty breathing, organ failure, and check for fluid build-up in a patient’s lungs. If ricin is administered by injection, it immediately kills the muscles and lymph nodes around the injection site. Total organ failure and death usually occur within four days.
The CDC has developed a urine test that can measure ricinine, a marker of ricin exposure and there are several methods for testing suspicious substances. The U.S. Postal Service uses sensors to check mail for biochemicals like anthrax and ricin, for example.
While one expert told the Washington Post that chances the men could have pulled off a large scale ricin attack were slim, another expert said what used to take three weeks in a lab can now be done by a “relatively unsophisticated technician.”
In the 40s, the U.S. military experimented with using ricin as a possible warfare agent. It has possibly been used as a warfare agent in Iraq and more recently by terrorist organizations, according to the CDC.
photo by U.S. Army/flickr