The death of Whitney Houston over the weekend is still being investigated, and it might take weeks to get toxicology reports back, the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office said. That’s not an unusual time frame for such a case, but why does it take so long?
Several factors may be involved, experts said. The main issue may be a big backlog of cases, said Dr. Doug Rollins, professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City: “Funding to most of these labs has been decreased,” he said, “so they don’t have the staff to handle that large of a caseload.”
Then there are the tests themselves. The lab could testing for one substance or hundreds, and for each one there could be tests of blood, tissue and urine.
The testing itself, Rollins said, is sophisticated and complex. Screening tests, he added, are typically followed up with specific analytical tests that can take anywhere from two to three days. If several substances are tested, that can add up.
“Let’s say they’re testing for aspirin,” he said. “They’ll first do a test of the blood to see if aspirin is present, then do a specific test for aspirin and measure the amount that’s there and quantitate it.”
“Once the testing is done there’s a review process,” said Michael Hensen, chief technical operations officer at Pacific Toxicology Laboratories in Chatsworth. “That could delay the results as well. There may even be a delay in getting started as they decide what they’re going to test for.”
Quality control is yet another factor. “I’m sure they want the quality to be good,” Hensen said, “especially in a high-profile case. They’re going to slow down and be careful with what they’re doing.”
The family has to be notified as well, he added, and that’s done before word goes out to the public.
In updated information on Houston’s case, the singer was found submerged in water in the bathtub of her room at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Los Angeles Times is reporting, and several prescription drugs were found in the room.
But unlike the quick turnaround time seen on crime shows, we’ll have to wait a while for tests to know exactly what caused her death. “Television has ruined us,” Rollins said. “We expect everything immediately.”