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Drugs or drowning? Science holds key to Houston death

Drugs? Booze? Suicide? Drowning? Speculation on the cause of Whitney Houston's sudden death have run the gamut since the singer was found on Saturday. But don't jump to conclusions.
/ Source: Reuters

Drugs? Booze? Suicide? Drowning? Speculation on the cause of Whitney Houston's sudden death have run the gamut since the singer was found on Saturday. But don't jump to conclusions.

Medical experts say it will take weeks to firmly establish the cause of Houston's death and, contrary to probes on TV crime shows like "CSI" or "Bones," sometimes science is fallible.

"I suspect the popular media has made toxicology tests almost as magical as everything else," Dr. Andrew Baker, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, told Reuters.

"I am sure there are TV shows where they squirt blood into a machine and five seconds later, they get a print out of every drug the person has ever taken. (But) it just doesn't work like that," said Baker, who is also the chief medical examiner of Hennepin County, Minnesota.

As in the case of Michael Jackson in 2009, or British singer Amy Winehouse last year, toxicology tests are now underway on Houston that could take up to eight weeks to yield results.

Initial suspicion over Houston's death at age 48 on Saturday afternoon in a Beverly Hills hotel fell on a possible drug overdose given the singer's well-chronicled history of drug and alcohol addiction.

"I first thought she had overdosed on crack or cocaine," said Beverly Hills defense attorney Mark McBride.

An autopsy was performed by Los Angeles County Coroners on Sunday and by Monday, police confirmed Houston had been found underwater in a bathtub. Prescription medication also was found in her room. The singer's brother-in-law, Billy Watson, dismissed talk that she may have committed suicide.

Dr. Baker, who is not involved in the Houston death investigation, said initial autopsies were good at establishing or ruling out death from causes like trauma, heart disease, aneurysm or ruptures of the brain.

"The autopsy is going to rule out 95 percent of things," he said. "But when it comes to diagnosing any kind of poisoning or intoxication or overdose, it really comes down to lab tests."


Los Angeles officials have declined to release the results of Houston's initial autopsy, or indulge in speculation about why she died.

"Out of respect for Ms. Houston, they want to be correct when they announce the cause of death. They don't want to participate in putting bad information out there," McBride said.

But some deaths can never be fully explained by science.

"In medication overdose cases, (sometimes) you can't tell if it was an accident or a suicide ... Many times people take medications long term and you can't tell how tolerant they are. Lots of people have a medically equivocal history, or depression or need pain medication," he said.

Jackson's death was first attributed to cardiac arrest. It was only two months of fevered rumors later, that the cause was found to be an overdose of sedatives and the powerful anesthetic propofol. More than two years elapsed until Jackson's physician, Dr. Conrad Murray, was convicted in November 2011 of involuntary manslaughter for administering the drugs to Jackson.

When Winehouse was found dead in her bed at 27, the British media instantly suspected drugs, given her long addiction to crack cocaine and ecstasy. An inquest finally determined she had high levels of alcohol in her system, but no illegal drugs, after a drinking binge following a long period of abstinence.

McBride said toxicology tests on blood, urine, and possibly eye fluid or the liver take so long because "the Los Angeles county lab is notoriously overbooked. They don't have enough forensic medical examiners or coroners or lab technicians to process everything."

He said the coroners' office is likely working closely with Beverly Hills police, who carried out a search warrant at the hotel on Saturday before removing Houston's body. Police initially said there were obvious signs of criminal intent.

McBride said that if a criminal investigation did ensue, it may focus on doctors who supplied Houston with prescription drugs. But he added that he doubted such a probe would happen.

"You can take a lot of (the anxiety medication) Xanax, and have a whole lot of drinks and fall under the water. It sounds like that is what might have happened," McBride said.