When a story like Whitney Houston's death breaks, there's always a huge rush to get information. But that often gets slowed to a near-stop when it comes to the key question: How, exactly, did she die? That's because when dealing with a death involving drugs (as Houston's reportedly did), investigators rely on something called a toxicology report, which determines what drugs, alcohol, and other chemicals were in a person's system when they died, and in what quantities. In Los Angeles County, where Houston died, a toxicology report takes about eight to 10 weeks to complete, said Lt. Fred Corral, with the Los Angeles Coroner's investigations division. That's thanks in part to a backlog and in part to an exhaustive testing process. And for Houston, who reportedly had multiple substances in her system, that's going to mean a matter of months before her test results come back.
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"We do try to expedite some of the cases," Corral said, adding the office would prioritize Houston's case. "But it's still going to be slow."
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Generally, toxicology screenings test for a number of drugs and alcohol compounds. Each individual test "could be done in a matter of a few days. But that's ... per narcotic, whatever they're looking for," Coralle said. Taken together, the tests drag on for weeks. A negative postmortem test, which simply shows there weren't any drugs in the victim's body, takes about four to six weeks to process, Dr. Nikolas Lemos, the chief forensic toxicologist at the San Francisco Medical Examiner's Office, wrote in an email.
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"A toxicology report is only reflective of what it is that you're looking for, so if you want me to look for one or two named drugs -- you want me to look for, say, Oxycodone -- it can be a matter of hours," Lemos told The Atlantic Wire. As the list of those compounds gets longer, the testing takes longer. A general test usually looks for antigens and antibodies belying the presence of "PCP, cocaine, opiates and opioids (such as morphine, heroin, fentanyl, oxycodone, hydrocodone, methadone), benzodiazepines (such as diazepam, nordiazepam, chlordiazepoxide, etc), amphetamines (such as methamphetamine, amphetamine, ecstasy, etc), tricyclic antidepressant drugs, and barbiturates," Lemos wrote.
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On top of all that, they'll test for any drugs the crime scene evidence suggests might be present, Corral said. Houston reportedly took Xanax, alcohol, and other prescription drugs before she died, at least according to TMZ, so that's going to mean more specific testing. Once something comes back positive, there's a second round of testing to determine exactly what kind of drug it is, and whether the concentration was fatal, Lemos said. "In toxicology, it's the concentration that makes the difference between therapy and poisoning. That takes additional tests, additional weeks. Now, the average American takes a multitude of pills and supplements or whatever, so if you have many of those to compare, that's what increases the time." Lemos said a positive toxicology report -- that is, one that showed the victim had ingested drugs or alcohol -- normally took about three months to issue, simply because of all the extra levels of testing. And that's before you even factor in the backlog.
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Corral said the backlog of tests in Los Angeles was significant. "If you're talking about a real quiet setting like out in the counties, they could probably do it in a week or two. But being in L.A., as busy as we are, it's eight to 10 weeks. We still have cases we haven't cleared since November," he said. Lemos pointed out that "even if you don't have a backlog, sometimes you have people calling in sick, you have an instrument malfunction, any number of factors" that can lead to a delay. "In the end, we want to get this information to these people, but you want to make sure it's not just expedient but accurate."