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DeBlog: Why Do Toxicology Tests Take So Long?

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(credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

(credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

(credit: CBS) Jason DeRusha
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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Since the death of Whitney Houston, the Good Question submission inbox has been overflowing with people asking about her toxicology results.

On Sunday, we heard that her autopsy was complete, but it was going to take several more weeks to get the toxicology results back. Why?

Rich in Brooklyn Center, John in Mounds View, Teri in Redwood Falls, and I wondered, is it a backlog at the lab or a technological limitation?

USA Today explained – it really is about the details of the technology.

During an autopsy, the coroner takes several fluid samples from the body: blood and urine samples are taken to find out if there are chemicals in the body. Just like during a drunken driving blood screen, they look for alcohol, barbiturates, amphetamines, opiates, and common prescriptions.

It takes a day to assign the samples, a day or two to run the test, then another day to interpret the results. These things can be somewhat sped up if the case is time-sensitive, but in the case of Whitney Houston, time is not an issue. There’s no foul play suspected.

That first screen doesn’t tell you how much of any of those drugs are in the system, just if there drugs in the system.

According to USA Today, “investigators take those initial results and then do a more precise test called ‘gas chromatography-mass spectrometry.’ That typically takes two to three days and shows concentrations of the chemicals.”

But in a high-profile case, doctors do multiple tests and re-tests. With Amy Winehouse, it was the same deal. CNN wrote about how complex things are when someone has multiple drugs in their system.

“Drugs could be present in very minute levels, in measurements like parts per million or parts per billion,” they explained, “it’s like “searching for five black marbles in a pile of 1 million white marbles.”

So it’s partially a workload issue and partially a technology issue. Having bad results sooner doesn’t do anyone any good, and that’s why law enforcement will often give a four to eight week timeline.

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