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Pitfalls of toxicological investigations in hair, bones, and nails in extensively decomposed bodies: illustration with two cases


It is difficult to carry out toxicological investigations in biological samples collected from extensively decomposed bodies and to interpret obtained results as several pitfalls should be considered: redistribution phenomena, degradation of xenobiotics during the postmortem period, contamination by putrefaction fluids, and external contamination. This work aims to present two cases in order to illustrate and discuss these difficulties in this tricky situation. Case#1: the body of a 30-year-old woman was found in a wooded area (1 month after she has been reported missing by her family): hair and a femur section were sampled. Case#2: the decomposed corpse of a 52-year-old man was found in a ditch: hair and nails were sampled. After decontamination steps, toxicological investigations were performed using liquid chromatography with high-resolution mass spectrometry and tandem mass spectrometry detection methods. In case#1, the same drugs or metabolites (benzodiazepines, propranolol, tramadol, acetaminophen, paroxetine, and oxetorone) were detected in hair and in bone specimens. This result combination strongly suggests intakes close to the time of death for three of them (oxazepam, lormetazepam, and propranolol). In case#2, results of toxicological investigations in hair and nails [(hair/nail concentration in ng/mg) nordiazepam (1.12/1.06), oxazepam (0.113/0.042), zolpidem (0.211/< 0.01), hydroxyzine (0.362/< 0.01), and cetirizine (0.872/1.110)] were both consistent with several drug intakes but were not contributory to cause of death determination. In case of positive toxicological results in biological samples collected from extensively decomposed bodies (such as hair, bones, or nails), it is challenging to determine the time, and even more, the level of the dose of exposure(s).

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Correspondence to Jean-Michel Gaulier.

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Wiart, JF., Hakim, F., Andry, A. et al. Pitfalls of toxicological investigations in hair, bones, and nails in extensively decomposed bodies: illustration with two cases. Int J Legal Med 134, 1339–1344 (2020).

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  • Forensic
  • Toxicology
  • Putrefaction
  • Bone
  • Hair
  • Nails