One thing I’ve always been curious about when I see stories of celebrity deaths (and there were a lot this past year) is how a toxicology report is done. Every time someone passes, it seems the media inevitably says something along the lines of “we’re awaiting the results of the toxicology report.” But what is a toxicology report and how is it done?
Toxicology testing is the testing for drugs in a person’s body after their death. It is used in forensic work to determine cause of death. In other instances, it may be done at the workplace when employees are tested for drug use or in sports professionals to ensure they are drug free and not using banned substances. After testing, a toxicology report is issued that determines the contents found in a person’s body. Here is how it’s done.
During an autopsy, blood, tissue and urine samples are taken so that it can be checked in toxicology tests. Blood is taken from various areas of the body, such as the femoral vein and heart. This is because drug concentration can vary from one part of the body to another. Urine is collected if there is any present in the body and tissue from the brain, liver and kidney are collected for testing as well.
From there, all the specimens are delivered to a toxicology expert for testing. Specimens are located in separate vials or containers to prevent contamination so that definitive results can be made when they are tested. There are also records of who handled each specimen to ensure that there is minimal risk of contamination or a mixup.
In addition to the testing itself, investigators will also examine the contents of the person’s medicine cabinet and other areas in their home to determine whether there was illicit drug use or if they were taking prescription drugs. Additionally, investigators can learn whether the individual was receiving multiple prescriptions from more than one doctor.
A toxicology report is made when experts determine the amount and type of drugs or poison in a person’s system. They check to see whether the amount was lethal and also consider other factors, such as the symptoms the individual experience prior to their death.
The testing is done when there is no other physical finding that reveals the cause of death. However, not every report is simple because there are always new drugs appearing on a daily basis. The fact that people change their drug of choice with the crop of new drugs surfacing and the popularity of others diminishing can potentially complicate the testing and subsequent report. It’s important for experts to stay on top of these trends.
In addition, it can take a long time – as much as several weeks – to get the toxicology data and the overall test results. This is because analyzing drugs is a process that involves several steps. Preliminary tests need to be confirmed and if the individual had more than one drug in their system, each has to be examined separately.