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Whitney Houston's Toxicology Tests: What's Taking So Long?

By Andrew Chow, Esq. | Last updated on

Rumors of pills, alcohol, and a bathtub drowning are circulating in the wake of Whitney Houston's unexpected death. But the coroner's office is awaiting toxicology tests to determine how the singer died.

"We won't make that final determination until all the tests are in," a coroner's spokesman said at a news conference, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Results of Whitney Houston's toxicology tests could take up to eight weeks, KNBC-TV reports. Why so long? And what's involved in a toxicology test anyway?

What is a toxicology test?

Whitney Houston's toxicology test is known as a forensic or postmortem drug test -- taking samples from a corpse and testing for the presence of drugs or alcohol. Experts can then determine whether, and how, those drugs caused a person's death.

The process begins in the morgue where various samples are collected, such as tissue from organs like the brain, liver, kidneys, and stomach, along with blood from different parts of the body, according to WebMD.

The samples are placed in special containers to prevent contamination, and sent to a laboratory. Preservatives may also be added to prevent drugs from degrading.

Urine and blood samples are generally first to be screened for drugs like alcohol, amphetamines, opiates, and marijuana, according to WebMD. If an initial test reveals drugs are present, a more sophisticated test can determine the drug's concentration in the body. Experts can then surmise if the drug's dosage was therapeutic, toxic, or lethal.

Why do toxicology tests take so long?

Many factors can affect how long Whitney Houston's toxicology tests will take to complete. A person's celebrity status is not supposed to be one of them.

Instead, the sheer volume of tissue and fluid samples to be tested can bog down a laboratory and delay results, WebMD says. Some samples may have to be sent to more specialized labs for more testing. Or a field investigation can reveal the presence of additional drugs to test for. Budget cuts have also led to a backlog of cases at some labs, the online magazine Slate reports.

Another factor in Whitney Houston's toxicology tests is the paper trail. Every sample must be accounted for at every step of the process, to establish a chain of custody. Any break in the chain could lead to the evidence being tossed out in court.

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