Magazine article Management Review

Bad Hair Days: Hair Follicle Testing Offers an Alternative to Traditional Drug Tests

Magazine article Management Review

Bad Hair Days: Hair Follicle Testing Offers an Alternative to Traditional Drug Tests

Article excerpt

Testing someone's hair to find the presence of drugs? Sounds like something out of a movie, but in reality, the FBI has been doing it for years. Today, many companies are using hair-follicle testing as a means of drug screening, both before making a job offer and during the employee's tenure, to check for illegal drug use.

Hair-follicle testing is a drug-testing method that is less demeaning, less invasive and less likely to be tampered with than the well-known urine test. Although hair-follicle testing is more reliable than urinalysis and can give a historical picture of drug use, it has some problems that all human resources managers should understand.

The statistics on drug use in the workplace are distressing. Government studies have revealed that one out of six workers has a drug problem. Compounding that is the fact that drug abusers are absent up to 16 times more often than non-drug-users. Studies have also shown that drug use can cost a company anywhere from $7,000 to $10,000 a year--drug users' productivity is about two-thirds of their non-drug-using colleagues. With such statistics, it behooves an employer to test often for drugs and to use the best method available.

Hair-Drug Connection

At the risk of sounding like a biology lesson, before one can understand hair-follicle testing for drugs, it is first necessary to understand how hair actually grows.

All hair grows within a small cavity known as a hair follicle. Hair growth occurs when cells divide in the matrix near the bottom of the follicle. This is where tissue and blood vessels supply food materials and oxygen to the cells so that cell growth can occur. The cells form a core that moves upward through the center of the follicle. The innermost cells of the core soon die and harden into hair which is known as the hair sheath. The hair and sheath move together as they move upward through the follicle. Near the top of the skin there are chemicals that eat away the sheath and free the hair from the sides of the follicle. Just before the hair emerges at the surface of the skin, the hair is lubricated with the oil from the sebaceous gland.

After someone takes a drug, the drug travels through the blood to cells in the hair follicles. It is at this point that the drug becomes permanently locked into the cells. As the new hair moves through the follicle and emerges out of the surface of the skin, the drug is permanently imprinted in the hair.

Hair-follicle testing is a scientifically valid and reliable form of drug testing. Its premise is based on the fact that traces of drugs become permanently locked into the hair, and each instance of drug intake becomes permanently recorded on strands of hair in chronological order of when the drug was ingested into the body. Since human hair growth generally occurs at one-half inch per month, it is easy to establish when the drug intake occurred.

Testing the Test

The procedure to test the hair for drugs works like this. Between 60 and 120 strands of hair approximately one-and-a-half inches are cut from the scalp. The strands are washed to remove external contaminants. They are then liquefied and separate chemical screens are administered. If a drug or drugs are detected, a second test using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry is performed to confirm the findings.

Hair-follicle testing costs about $50 to $65. Initial test results are available in 24 to 48 hours. If the initial screening reveals the existence of drugs, the results of the second test to confirm the findings take another 48 hours to complete.

Advantages Over Urinalysis

* Urinalysis can be thought of as an "intelligence test" for the drug user. An intelligent drug user who knows when the urinalysis will be administered can refrain from taking drugs for a few days before the test in order to escape detection of drugs. Drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine and opiates are metabolized very rapidly. …

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