Finding out cause of death of milk tea victims may take 2-3 months
MANILA, Philippines–It may take two to three months before authorities find out what killed two people and seriously sickened a third one after they drank milk tea prepared at a shop in Sampaloc, Manila, last week.
After the Department of Health (DOH) announced Monday that initial tests conducted on the milk tea samples came up negative for any toxic substance, police investigators were hoping that the results of toxicology tests carried out on the decreased victims—ErgoCha owner William Abrigo and customer Suzaine Dagohoy—
would reveal what killed them.
“The Crime Laboratory at the Philippine National Police headquarters in Camp Crame is conducting the toxicology tests, but we don’t know when [the results] will be released,” Senior Supt. Rolando Nana, Manila Police District (MPD) director, said on Monday.
The toxicology tests will involve, among others, examining the contents of the victims’ stomachs to determine what they had ingested and if there were any toxic chemicals in their system that led to their death.
“[The Crime Lab] said that results from these tests normally come out after two to three months. However, we got assurance from them that they will expedite the release of the tests, but we don’t know how long it will be,” said SPO2 Jonathan Bautista.
On the same day that the DOH and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) revealed their initial findings, the MPD defended the samples it took from Abrigo’s shop.
Senior Insp. Melchor Villar, chief of the homicide section of the MPD’s Crimes Against Persons Investigation Section, said that the items they submitted to the FDA for testing were all found inside the store.
However, Villar could not give a definite answer when pressed if these samples included the glass of Hokkaido-flavored milk tea that Abrigo, Dagohoy, and her boyfriend, Arnold Aydalla, drank from. “Maybe we’ll know that in time,” he answered.
Abrigo made two glasses of milk tea when Aydalla and Dagohoy came to his shop. The couple returned the first one to Abrigo after Aydalla complained that it tasted different. Abrigo tasted it, before proceeding to make a second glass as replacement for the first one.
Crucial evidence missing
Investigators said that the samples they sent to the FDA came from the second glass prepared by Abrigo—not the first one—from which all three drank from.
“What we submitted came from the second glass. It was the only glass we found there when we arrived at the store,” Bautista said. It is not known what happened to the first glass after the couple returned it to Abrigo.
The DOH on Monday said that initial tests conducted on the milk tea samples failed to detect any toxic substance although experts stressed that they have not ruled out poisoning.
According to Health Secretary Janette Garin, they have expanded the tests to include biological samples taken from the victims such as blood, tissues and gastric contents since the milk tea samples submitted to the FDA were not enough to provide conclusive results.
“Preliminary results of the tests done on the milk tea were negative for suspected toxic substances. But while none was detected, it doesn’t mean that [the samples] did not [contain] a toxic substance at all,” Garin told reporters on Monday.
According to Ma. Lourdes Santiago, FDA deputy director general for regulatory operation, the agency tested the milk tea samples for cyanide, arsenic, nitrates and nitrites.
“Initial findings show that those substances were not detected but we need further confirmatory tests. We are also considering looking for other substances once we complete the investigation with the PNP and toxicologists,” said Santiago.
This includes other poisonous substances such as oxalic acid and nitrobenzene and other lead elements.
In explaining the negative finding, Santiago pointed to several factors that could have affected the tests.
“If ever there was a possible contamination or poisoning and it was not detected, it is possible that the substance was not equally distributed and the chemical was concentrated at the bottom,” she told reporters.
The victims, she added, may have ingested the most potent portion of the toxic chemical.
Another explanation was that whatever amount of poison was left in the drink may have been too small for their equipment and technique to detect, Santiago explained.
The lethal dose of cyanide—which can be found in silver cleaning solutions—is as small as five to six parts per million (ppm).
Limited volume of sample
“The volume of the sample is also very challenging because under routine circumstances, we ask for [a big amount] which is not limited to one liter. And again, we are talking of several substances to look for,” Santiago said.
She further explained that in analyzing tainted food, medicine or cosmetics, a sufficient number or amount of samples was needed to get accurate and conclusive results. “This is a very unusual situation in which the sample is very limited,” she said.
Santiago also pointed out that the FDA must have at least one to two liters of the tainted milk tea to run tests covering a wide range of poisonous substances.
The FDA initially received roughly 500 ml of the milk tea sample. Only around 200 ml remain for further testing, she noted.
Dr. Visitacion Antonio, a toxicologist from the East Avenue Medical Center, said muscle twitching and seizures, which the victims experienced, were common symptoms of chemical poisoning.
“But we have more than 100,000 chemicals that’s why it is difficult for us to come out with a definitive diagnosis. We need to pool the laboratory results from the milk tea sample and the results from the biological samples so we can come up with a conclusion,” said Antonio.
She added that they were expecting to complete confirmatory tests on the biological samples with the help of the police within the week.
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