Volume 40, Issue 5 (September 1995)
The Role of Ethanol in Heroin Deaths
The purpose of this study was to evaluate the role of ethanol in deaths due to heroin intoxication. Over a 12 month period, all cases investigated by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, State of Maryland where a blood screen by Roche Abuscreen radioimmunoassay (RIA) was positive at a cutoff of 100 ng/mL were included in the study. Free morphine was quantitated using the Coat-A-Count RIA and ethanol was quantitated by head space gas chromatography. All presumptive morphine positive cases were confirmed by gas chromatography/mass spectrometry. Seventy of the 119 cases where death was attributed to narcotic or alcohol and narcotic intoxication had blood ethanol concentrations (BAC) greater than or equal to 0.02 g/dL; 48 had BAC ≥ 0.10 g/dL. Only 3 of 45 cases where morphine was identified but was unrelated to death had BAC ≥ 0.02 g/dL. At all ranges of free morphine concentrations, there was a greater percentage of narcotic deaths when ethanol was present. From the data, we conclude that 1) the use of even small amounts of ethanol with heroin is clearly a risk factor in deaths due to heroin, 2) there are some heroin deaths where no free morphine is identified in the blood. In these deaths, ethanol is unlikely to be present, 3) at blood ethanol concentrations between 0.20 and 0.29 g/dL, the morphine concentrations in heroin deaths increased significantly, 4) at blood ethanol concentrations greater than 0.30 g/dL, morphine became less of a factor than the ethanol in causing death.