A few days ago, a baby barely a month old passed away in his parents’ bed. They will not have read it in the press. Or well, technically yes.
Initially, the coroner pointed to suffocation as the cause of death, given the place where the baby was. The parents had brought him in at midnight to sleep next to them.
But Amparo González had a feeling. This microbiologist, head of service at the National Institute of Toxicology and Forensic Sciences (INTCF), decided to pass her swabs – swabs to collect samples – through various areas of the baby’s respiratory system.
And what happened?
“We found two viruses in three samples, we have Influenza C, which is not frequent, and then the respiratory syncytial virus,” explains González to EL ESPAÑOL. “The boy probably had bronchiolitis.”
The child did not die because the parents put him to bed. Mourning will remain, of course, but the difference between bearing the penalty and guilt or only the penalty is substantial, and we owe it to the only center in Spain where forensic microbiology is practiced.
“We are twenty doctors in the service and there is always someone talking to a forensic,” says the microbiologist, “they ask us for specific analytics and then we contact them in case something is not clear or to give them some result.”
In this specific case, which González will explain by phone to the coroner throughout the day, he sent a preliminary autopsy analysis. “He saw that the lungs were congestive but he did not appreciate the beginning of bacterial infection, something difficult to appreciate in infants,” he explains, “but finding these viruses in various areas of the lungs, in the nasopharyngeal swab and in the tracheal swab cannot be a chance find ”.
Winners in the last PGE
The INTCF usually does this work in silence, assisting forensics, police or civil guard in numerous crimes. However, a few days ago they were the talk. In a context in which Spanish scientists feel mistreated by the government in the latest General State Budgets, this body, made up mostly of biologists, doctors and other researchers with a criminological vocation, multiplied its budget for this year from one to six million euros.
But its director, Dolores Moreno, explains that it is not a gift, but an outstanding debt. “The main need is the renewal of the equipment, which is becoming obsolete, much of our technology park is now more than five years old and there are even devices that exceed ten”.
In the field of forensic sciences, the technology to analyze genetic samples or identify corpses evolves very quickly, so that obsolescence has a very negative effect on the reliability of the results and even on maintenance, as many companies stop producing spare parts for your electron microscopes or your original chromatographs after a few years.
“There was a progressive renovation plan that could not be carried out due to the economic situation,” explains Moreno, for whom the situation reached a “worrying scenario, requiring an investment of a certain caliber”.
The Shopping list of the National Institute of Toxicology, to which EL ESPAÑOL has had access, focuses mainly on the Department of Chemistry and Drugs, which will take around four million euros in new material: from chromatographs with spectrometry – known as selective detectors – to automated DNA extraction systems.
Your life is how you imagine it
Police and judges have been asking scientists for help in solving crimes for centuries. The origins of the INTCF are in 1887, when there were three Legal Medicine Laboratories distributed in Madrid, Barcelona and Seville.
Currently, 222 people work at the headquarters, located in Las Rozas. In the director’s office, in addition to some works loaned by the Reina Sofía Museum, hangs the usual photograph of Felipe VI and a portrait, even larger in size, of a bald man with a prominent nose and gray hair that hangs down on both of them. sides of the head. He is Mateo Orfila from Mahon, father of scientific toxicology.
What is the main difference between what people think forensic investigators do, because they see it on shows like CSI, and what they actually do at centers like INTCF?
“There are few differences, it is quite similar,” smiles Moreno, who will surely have answered this question many times since he finished his studies in forensic medicine. “We work a lot with criminal investigation cases.”
The industrial decor of the center, with exposed pipes, glass and gray doors along the Criminalistics corridor, reveals specific laboratories for almost every part of a crime: the clothes, the weapons, the documents and, of course, the parts of the crime. body involved.
Documentary researchers, for example, will get from the PGEs a new spectral video system for analyzing documents and a scanning electron microscope. This will allow them to know, for example, if a signature is authentic or has been retouched, or to introduce a sample under the microscope without having to dehydrate it first.
“We had needs, above all, for imaging devices to view microscopic samples or take measurements,” explains Cruz Valero, chief of the Criminalistics service. “Even if you don’t have the latest model, you can work, of course, the only thing is when the house can no longer give you spare parts: when these years we have had a zero budget, the burden was that, that the equipment began to fail and we were left hanging , that caused us anguish ”.
Answers in the flesh
The Wounds area focuses on pieces of tissue, most commonly corpses. In these pieces there is usually the clue of who, where, how or when he did it.
There is an elongated piece of skin and hair divided by a central strip that runs through it like the line of a highway. It is the piece of the neck of a man who hanged himself. Next to it, a piece of clothesline, white and blue, found at the scene of the events. One of the researchers in the laboratory analyzes the piece of skin in search of plastic threads that allow the two pieces of the puzzle to be joined.
Further on, on the same table, a round chunk of human flesh with a purple bruise in the center. Suicide. The new budget support will also allow them to acquire a tool to interpret the shooting distance and clarify confusing cases, although in this particular it does not seem necessary.