Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Coroner riffs on heroin deaths

As one of the local police chiefs told me today: “it is your fault”. I pushed out the information a little while ago that we have had an increase in our number of heroin deaths, with a significant peak last December, and demonstrated with test results that it is at least in part due to an increase in the purity of the local heroin. Apparently because of that heroin deaths are really getting noticed. Other counties have put out information that they, too, have seen increases in their numbers. Newspapers, TV and radio stations have done reports. Everyone wants something done and those that can do something want to do something (hence the police chief’s call).

We need to guard against misinformation and incorrect conjecture about who, what where, and why. In our county (and I would guess the same is true in other counties) the heroin deaths are occurring throughout the county, across geographic and socioeconomic “boundaries”. With many of them, particularly among the young victims, there seems to be a significant predilection for those with disposable income and extra free-time (just as we see in underage drinking, although I know they are very separate problems).

This is not a “gang problem”, as some would have you believe, it is easier to say it is gangs (the others) than to work to seek out the real sources and solutions. While a big local source is the “west side markets in Chicago”, our local resellers are local kids/folks in affluent and poor neighborhoods alike.

I have been asked in a couple of recent interviews (including one yesterday for a Chicago college newspaper) is it the increased purity alone or is there increased use. I believe it is both. The “new” heroin is deadlier and more addicting. It is easier to use, you can inhale it and you don’t have to inject it. One “new” group of users we are seeing are those folks who start with pain pill use that progresses to over-use and abuse. Then for several reasons they switch to heroin, it is cheaper, easier to get with no doctor or ER shopping required, also when your doctor cuts you off you have to go somewhere.

What to do? I do know that we have to use all the resources we can, all of the sources of information that we have (including the previously unused information that Coroners and MEs have). We need to increase addiction treatment availability, the entire spectrum of treatment options. We need to inform folks that this is happening and not let the public and public officials ignore the problem. This is going to require work and cooperation. Not just the Coroner, not just police and other law enforcement, but moms and kids and other just plain folks. We must get creative with solutions and with information acquisition.

What we are doing now isn’t working. People are dying, kids are dying (an 18 year old last Friday).

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Coroner gets bouquet of bones for Spring

Aah, the first signs of spring. The crocuses are blooming and the daffodils are pushing up through the ground. And one of our “signs of spring”, the bones are appearing

We have had several “bone cases” through the last couple of weeks. People, and particularly dogs, find the bones as the snow goes away. Folks are concerned that they may have happened upon some grisly murder and dismemberment scene and we get called. We get called either directly by the finder or, more commonly, by the law enforcement agency that the bones are turned into.

The picture posted above actually involved a radio interview (XLC) because one of the morning show’s host’s dog found the bone. The host was convinced that it was a human bone, the victim of an ax murder. To her dismay, it is a much more mundane animal bone, not human.

I am glad to say that all of our cases have been animal bones, so far this year. It does happen that we get a human bone or skeleton from time to time, again particularly in the Spring

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Cyanide death

Although we don’t encounter cyanide related deaths very often, I have written about it before.

We had a cyanide death recently in our County. Word of the woman’s death “leaked” to the media and I got a half dozen calls from various outlets. I say “leaked” because I didn’t report it to the media (I get calls daily asking for information on “reportable deaths”, i.e. deaths they can do news stories on) because in our ongoing investigation at the time we were trying to decide between suicide and accident (the local media does not do stories on suicides, unless they are public).

The woman had died by inhaling cyanide gas, there was no evidence of a caustic ingestion, after generating the gas by mixing crystalline cyanide with an acid (or possibly with water, although this is a less “efficient” chemical reaction to generate hydrogen cyanide gas than the acid).

The media questions were interesting, but settled into disappointment after talking with me. I still do not know where their limited (incorrect?) initial information came from. I got questions like: Was she murdered? Did someone inject her with the cyanide? Was she hit and then given the cyanide? Etc.

No real story here. Based on our now completed investigation it appears it was an unfortunate accident. She apparently had the cyanide in her home for over 15 to 20 years. She had gotten the opinion of a “chemist” and/or from the internet that cyanide loses it toxicity over the years and becomes non-toxic after 20 years (important note: that is not true!). She did post a warning to anyone who might be entering her home that there was cyanide in her home. We surmise that she was cleaning up the cyanide in her basement (likely in preparation to move south) when the gas was generated by chemical reaction and she was overcome and died.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

More on deadly heroin

Headline 1 today: Spike in suburban heroin deaths

A story about the apparent increase in heroin related deaths across several local counties, with a law enforcement report of increased heroin seizures and arrests. It even mentions an increase in folks seeking treatment of heroin addiction in the area (great to see that).

Headline 2 today: Heroin in Fox Lake death of lethal purity, official says

(That official being me) An article about our finding (of course, with the help of DEA testing) increased purity/concentration of heroin in at least some of our cases as an explanation of Headline 1.

Increased availability of increasingly deadly heroin, what a foundation for disastrous consequences.

Law enforcement needs to cooperatively work to track and stem the flow (we will do all we can to help here), courts need to push folks to treatment, and treatment programs must gear up to treat those in need; or we will continue to see increased business from a drug originally spelled “heroine”.