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Forensic Sci Int. 2007 Jan 5;165(1):10-29. Epub 2006 Jun 19.

Interpreting results of ethanol analysis in postmortem specimens: a review of the literature.

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  • 1Department of Forensic Medicine, Karolinska Institutet, SE-171 77 Stockholm, Sweden.


We searched the scientific literature for articles dealing with postmortem aspects of ethanol and problems associated with making a correct interpretation of the results. A person's blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) and state of inebriation at the time of death is not always easy to establish owing to various postmortem artifacts. The possibility of alcohol being produced in the body after death, e.g. via microbial contamination and fermentation is a recurring issue in routine casework. If ethanol remains unabsorbed in the stomach at the time of death, this raises the possibility of continued local diffusion into surrounding tissues and central blood after death. Skull trauma often renders a person unconscious for several hours before death, during which time the BAC continues to decrease owing to metabolism in the liver. Under these circumstances blood from an intracerebral or subdural clot is a useful specimen for determination of ethanol. Bodies recovered from water are particular problematic to deal with owing to possible dilution of body fluids, decomposition, and enhanced risk of microbial synthesis of ethanol. The relationship between blood and urine-ethanol concentrations has been extensively investigated in autopsy specimens and the urine/blood concentration ratio might give a clue about the stage of alcohol absorption and distribution at the time of death. Owing to extensive abdominal trauma in aviation disasters (e.g. rupture of the viscera), interpretation of BAC in autopsy specimens from the pilot and crew is highly contentious and great care is needed to reach valid conclusions. Vitreous humor is strongly recommended as a body fluid for determination of ethanol in postmortem toxicology to help establish whether the deceased had consumed ethanol before death. Less common autopsy specimens submitted for analysis include bile, bone marrow, brain, testicle, muscle tissue, liver, synovial and cerebrospinal fluids. Some investigators recommend measuring the water content of autopsy blood and if necessary correcting the concentration of ethanol to a mean value of 80% w/w, which corresponds to fresh whole blood. Alcoholics often die at home with zero or low BAC and nothing more remarkable at autopsy than a fatty liver. Increasing evidence suggests that such deaths might be caused by a pronounced ketoacidosis. Recent research has focused on developing various biochemical tests or markers of postmortem synthesis of ethanol. These include the urinary metabolites of serotonin and non-oxidative metabolites of ethanol, such as ethyl glucuronide, phosphatidylethanol and fatty acid ethyl esters. This literature review will hopefully be a good starting point for those who are contemplating a fresh investigation into some aspect of postmortem alcohol analysis and toxicology.

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