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Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Death by Poisoning and the Forensic Toxicologist

     Poisoning is a sufficiently common cause of death that the medical examiner's office of most large jurisdictions employs a full-time toxicologist--a specialist trained in the study of poisons, their detection, their use in homicide, and their effect on the human body--to determine if poisoning occurred and what substance or substances caused death. Accidental poisoning is distressingly common, especially among children, but poisoning is also one of the oldest methods of murder.

     The forensic toxicologist runs chemical tests on body fluids, blood, and some organs to identify the presence of poisons. Some agents, such as arsenic, accumulate over time in the hair and fingernails. In cases of suspected arsenic poisoning these are always tested. Traces of arsenic remain in hair and fingernails indefinitely, and, if necessary, a body can be exhumed for examination many years after death.

     The forensic toxicologist can test for blood alcohol level, to determine if the victim had been intoxicated at the time of death and perhaps sufficiently so to cause death. The toxicologist also has the ability to test for the presence of a wide variety of illicit drugs that are often abused, including amphetamines, barbiturates, powdered cocaine and crack cocaine, marijuana, and such opiates as codeine and morphine.

     Legitimate therapeutic drugs are sometimes taken in deliberate or accidental overdose. The toxicologist tests for the presence of acetaminophen, anticonvulsants, tranquilizers, and aspirin products.

     Beyond drugs both legal and illegal, many common substances are highly toxic and can cause accidental poisoning or be used to commit murder. Tests have been developed for most of these, including arsenic, benzene, bromide, butyl nitrite, cyanide, strychnine, and warfarin (a common rat poison).

Alan Axelrod and Guy Antinozzi, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Criminal Investigation, 2003 (This in an excellent text not just written for "idiots" but for serious students of criminal investigation.)

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