Toxic meltdown at forensic labs

18 February 2011 – South Africa’s state forensic chemistry laboratories have ground to a virtual halt, according to the country’s top pathologists. With a national backlog of about 20 000 toxicology samples awaiting processing, state pathologist and Wits forensic pathology lecturer Dr Gina Rowe said toxicology is running almost 10 years behind. Carolyn Raphaely writes for the Mail & Guardian.

Jose van Rooyen, the new head of the health department’s Johannesburg toxicology lab, said it was sitting with “backlogs of about six years, more than 6 000 outstanding cases and only 12 analysts, five of whom have adequate experience”.

“The staff complement hasn’t changed since 1991,” Van Rooyen said. “Finding skilled staff is a major problem. We’ve had a huge staff turnover and the technology has changed. We’re desperate.”

Professionals in the field agree that the situation is dire.

The family of 14-year-old Leon Booysen — who was found dead in a Heidelberg police cell in 2006 — has felt the brunt of the backlog, waiting 52 months for an inquest into the child’s death, which finally got under way this week. Booysen’s autopsy report took three-and-a-half years to complete because the pathologist had been waiting for the completion of the toxicology report.
“Unfortunately, the sad truth is that Booysen’s family is lucky,” a court official said. “In my experience the average wait for a toxicology report these days is five to eight years.”

Dr Johannes Steenkamp, the senior state pathologist at the Germiston mortuary, who did the autopsy on Booysen’s body, said that in the four years he has worked at the mortuary, performing autopsies on scores if not hundreds of people, he has received only two or three toxicology reports.

‘We’re dysfunctional’
Following a Wits Justice Project (WJP) investigation, which was published in the Mail & Guardian in October last year, it emerged that after years of waiting for Booysen’s toxicology report, Steenkamp issued a “final” autopsy report without having had sight of the toxicological findings. In fact, three weeks before the inquest was due to start, Steenkamp remained unaware of the existence of such a report.

Read the full story here.

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The Wits Justice Project combines journalism, advocacy, law and education to make the criminal justice system work better for all.

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