Was Brittany Murphy Poisoned?

An iffy new autopsy report shows she had heavy metals in her hair.

Actress Brittany Murphy (L) and her husband on November 7, 2007 in Los Angeles, California.
Brittany Murphy and her husband on Nov. 7, 2007 in Los Angeles.

Illustration by Slate; Photo by Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

The father of deceased actress Brittany Murphy, of Clueless and 8 Mile fame, released toxicology reports on Monday showing that his daughter had elevated levels of 10 heavy metals in her hair. Murphy’s father attributes the abnormality to foul play. The Explainer has some history with this investigation. The new question is: Are antimony and barium in a decedent’s hair conclusive proof of murder?

No. Hair dye is the most likely source of heavy metals in a woman’s hair. A 2008 study, for example, found that hair dye can lead to elevated levels of manganese, iron, nickel, copper, cadmium, and antimony. Medical examiners typically do not perform hair tests for heavy metals unless there is other evidence to suggest poisoning. Mees’ lines, white bands that run crosswise on the fingernails and toenails, are a classic indicator of heavy metal poisoning. Since the Los Angeles County coroner’s office didn’t order heavy metals testing, it’s very unlikely they observed Mees’ lines or any other circumstantial evidence of poisoning.

There are further concerns with the accuracy of the recent laboratory report. Chain of custody is crucial in autopsy and forensic toxicology. It’s not entirely clear how Brittany Murphy’s father obtained the hair sample, or how he confirmed that it belonged to his deceased daughter. According to the New York Daily News, Murphy’s mother has questioned the source of the sample.

The laboratory report, produced by the Carlson Co., contains several irregularities. The report concludes, “If we were to eliminate the possibility of a simultaneous accidental heavy metals exposure to the sample donor then the only logical explanation would be an exposure to these metals (toxins) administered by a third party perpetrator with likely criminal intent.” That is a highly misleading statement. Ernest Lykissa, the toxicologist who ran the tests, told Slate that he considered environmental sources, such as hair dyes, the most likely source of the heavy metals. Only if that explanation could be eliminated—which it clearly cannot, since Murphy wore several different hair colors—would he then consider the possibility of deliberate poisoning. Murphy’s father’s interpretation of the report is inaccurate, as are the headlines of certain news outlets that claim the tests indicate foul play.

In addition to its strange wording, the statement about criminal intent is unusual in a toxicology report. Forensic toxicologists rarely make such guesses, because they only see a portion of the evidence. Dr. Bruce Goldberger, director of UF health forensic medicine at the University of Florida, told Slate, “The interpretive statement on the Carlson Laboratory report is inappropriate and misleading and could lead to false accusations.” Indeed, the Los Angeles County coroner may be forced to reopen the case to allay public concerns raised by the questionable Carlson report.

A thorough read of the report raises basic questions about the professionalism of the Carlson Co. (The Examiner, which broke the story, posted only an abbreviated version of the report). It has a section entitled “Lab Affiliations/ Associations/ Memberships” that lists the College of American Pathologists. In fact, the Carlson Co. is not accredited by the College of American Pathologists. Ernest Lykissa, the external toxicologist who performed the analysis, does have CAP accreditation, but neither he nor his company, ExperTox, are named in the report. The Carlson Co. also includes The “U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency” in the same affiliations section, misidentifying the Drug Enforcement Administration. Finally, the report directs readers to Wikipedia for additional information, which is odd for a toxicology report.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Video Explainer: What If We Detonated a Nuclear Bomb on the Moon?