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Forensic Sci Int. 2002 Nov 5;130(1):49-54.

Fatal versus non-fatal heroin "overdose": blood morphine concentrations with fatal outcome in comparison to those of intoxicated drivers.

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Department of Legal Medicine, Medical University of Luebeck, Kahlhorststrasse 31-35, D-23562 Luebeck, Germany.


The study was performed to distinguish fatal from non-fatal blood concentrations of morphine. For this purpose, blood levels of free morphine and total morphine (free morphine plus morphine conjugates) in 207 cases of heroin-related deaths were compared to those in 27 drivers surviving opiate intoxication. The majority of both survivors and non-survivors were found to show a concomitant use of depressants including alcohol or stimulants. Blood morphine levels in both groups varied widely, with a large area of overlap between survivors (free morphine: 0-128 ng/ml, total morphine: 10-2,110 ng/ml) and non-survivors (free morphine: 0-2,800 ng/ml, total morphine: 33-5,000 ng/ml). Five (18.5%) survivors and 87 (42.0%) non-survivors exhibit intoxication only by morphine. In these cases, too, both groups overlapped (survivors-free morphine: 28-93 ng/ml, total morphine: 230-1,451 ng/ml; non-survivors-free morphine: 0-2,800 ng/ml, total morphine: 119-4,660 ng/ml). Although the blood levels of free or total morphine do not allow a reliable prediction of survival versus non-survival, the ratio of free/total morphine may be a criterion to distinguish lethal versus survived intoxication. The mean of the ratio of free to total morphine for all lethal cases (N=207) was 0.293, for those that survived (N=27) 0.135, in cases of intoxication only by morphine 0.250 (N=87) and 0.080 (N=5), respectively. Applying a cut-off of 0.12 for free/total morphine and performing ROC analyses, fatal outcome can be predicted in 80% of the cases correctly, whereas 16% of the survivors were classified as dead. Nevertheless, in this study, all cases with a blood concentration of 200 ng/ml and more of free morphine displayed a fatal outcome.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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