Awaiting the results of toxicology testing…

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‘Awaiting the results of toxicology testing’. A frequently heard addition to a news report on a suspicious death.


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Today I heard that sentence in relation to Boris Berezovski, the Russian oligarch, who was found dead at his Berkshire home on Saturday.  The Thames Valley Police had said that there was no sign of third party involvement and have now released the results of the autopsy:

 “The results of the postmortem examination, carried out by a Home Office pathologist, have found the cause of death is consistent with hanging.”

They are still awaiting the results of toxicology.  Why?

Forensic toxicology has two main functions:
One – to establish the cause of death
Two – to aid the Coroner evaluate the circumstances surrounding around a death.

Cause of death

In this case it would appear quite straight forward, a suicidal hanging.  But what if he had a large amount of a drug in his body, enough to cause death? Was there enough in their to have killed him first before the hanging was staged?  Or perhaps there could be a poison in his system that was administered to him.  My article on ricin has been viewed quite a few times since the weekend – coincidence? Most probably.  The pathologist will have  issued their findings based on a thorough examination of the body.  Samples such as blood, urine and stomach contents will have be sent off to be analysed by a toxicology laboratory.  Stomach contents in a case like this are useful as they will contain any undigested tablets or capsules.  This can be very helpful when an overdose is suspected.


Circumstances around death

The completion of the blood and urine analyses will help the coroner to understand the frame of mind of an individual.  Had they been drinking heavily recently before death?  Were they using recreational drugs?  In an apparent suicide they will also be interested to see whether the prescription drugs were being taken.  If an individual is prescribed an antidepressant but is not taking it then that may help to explain the reasons for suicide.

When I wrote about Oscar Pistorius a comment was made that there was a very long backlog of toxicology tests in South Africa.  I have tried to research this and found several articles that said there was a six year wait for results (such as this) but the articles were mainly a year or two old.  As yet I am unable to find any toxicology results from the Pistorius case in the press.

In the UK I would expect a case like this to be pushed through very quickly.  In toxicology terms that would be reporting within a couple of weeks.  If there are any suspicious findings this may be prolonged to allow further analysis.

Understandably the case of Berezovski has aroused a lot of media and public interest and lots of thoughts about spying and the Cold War.  There have been links with several other high profile Russian deaths in and around London over the past few years, including the infamous assassination of Alexander Litvinenko.  In fact Berezovski was due to give evidence at his inquest shortly.  We shouldn’t have to wait too long for the results of the toxicology and if anything comes of this other than a simple ‘nothing was detected’ I’ll bring you some comment as soon as I can.  It may well be a couple of years until a formal inquest is heard to determine the circumstances around his death.  We’ll have to wait patiently!


Thanks for reading.

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About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. He is currently the subject lead for chemistry and forensic science at Sheffield Hallam University. He's managed hundreds of forensic toxicology cases, and is an experienced court witness. He has specialist expertise in forensic toxicology and drug testing in sport. And yes... he watches CSI.