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Forensic Sci Int. 2003 Apr 23;133(1-2):152-8.

Post-mortem analysis of formic acid disposition in acute methanol intoxication.

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  • 1Laboratorio de Toxicología y Química Legal, Dirección General de Asesorías Periciales-Suprema Corte de Justicia Provincia de Buenos Aires, Calle 41 y 119 (1900), La Plata, Argentina.


Fifteen cases of fatal massive methanol intoxication have been investigated. Victims received either no treatment or ethanol therapeutic treatment. Methanol poisoning cases were classified in three groups according to survival time: more than 3 days (group 1), up to 3 days (group 2) and few hours (group 3). Body distribution of methanol and formic acid, as the main metabolite, was analyzed in blood and in different organs (brain, kidney, lung and liver). Relationships between formic acid concentration in the different tissues, survival time and type of treatment applied to victims were studied. Formic acid in blood and tissues was analyzed by head space gas chromatography (head space-GC) with FID detector, previous transformation in methyl formate, essentially as described by Abolin. Formic acid concentration was between 0.03 and 1.10g/l in the samples under study. A good correlation between blood and brain, but poor between blood and the remaining tissues was found. Obtained data suggested that the use of blood and brain could help to improve the analysis of formic acid intoxication. The best correlation among organs was found between lung and kidney for all groups (r(2)=0.91, 0.84 and 0.87, corresponding to groups 1, 2 and 3, respectively). Lethality index was defined as LI = (concentration of formic acid in blood in (g/l)/0.5) x 100, taking into account that 0.5g/l is the concentration reported by Mahieu in severe methanol poisoning. LI parameter was used to estimate formic acid incidence on the lethality of methanol poisoning cases. LI showed a good correlation with total formic acid concentration of the different tissues analyzed (r(2)=0.80). Furthermore, LI allowed us to discriminate between individuals that received therapeutic treatment and survived different periods. LI>100 indicated a severe intoxication and short survival time if the victim was assisted with ethanol therapy and hemodialysis was not applied. With regard to victims who received no therapeutic treatment and died in few hours, LI was in the range 40-100. LI was below 40 for individuals that survived more than 3 days and hemodialysis was not performed. Results showed the importance of performing formic acid analysis to diagnose severe methanol intoxication in post-mortem cases.

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