Rooting out Drug Abuse

By Thistle, William | Security Management, March 1997 | Go to article overview

Rooting out Drug Abuse


Thistle, William, Security Management


Drug testing has become routine practice among some of the country's largest employers. According to figures published by the American Management Association, more than 81 percent of major U.S. companies use drug testing. But the most common method - urinalysis - may not be the most effective for all situations. Some companies are finding that hair analysis is easier to carry out and harder for employees to subvert.

The technology behind workplace hair analysis for drug use was pioneered twenty years ago by Dr. Werner and Annette Baumgartner. More than ten years of research (funded by the Veterans Administration, the United States Navy, the American Society for Industrial Security, and the National Institute of Justice) on thousands of subjects has proven that drugs deposited in the hair can be measured. The testing of over one million hair specimens has proven hair analysis to be an effective and safe drug testing medium.

When drugs are ingested, they circulate throughout the bloodstream. As the blood nourishes the hair follicles, trace amounts of drug residue become entrapped in the core of the hair shaft. These traces cannot be washed or flushed out and remain in the hair as it grows out, typically at one-half inch per month.

Hair testing can detect drug use that occurred over several months prior to the test, depending on the length of the hair sample. Standard hair tests analyze the inch and a half of hair closest to the scalp, providing a detection period for approximately the previous ninety days.

The testing technology of hair, a radioimmunoassay screen followed by ultra-sensitive gas chromatography/mass spectrometry procedures for confirmation, mirrors the testing procedures conducted with urinalysis. Increased detection levels and other benefits are due to the stability of drugs in hair.

Benefits. Hair testing provides a wider time period of detection than urinalysis, is more difficult to evade, and provides more information. The test is also nonintrusive, cost-effective, and provides the safety net of an accurate retest.

Time period. Because the level of most drugs in urine decreases rapidly with time, urine tests generally detect drug use only for the previous two to three days for most drugs. Conversely, drugs remain permanently entrapped in hair as it grows. Therefore, a one and one-half inch long sample, as mentioned, provides a history of drug use for about the prior ninety days.

Tampering. Drug users cannot employ the same tricks to subvert hair testing that have become commonplace with urinalysis. Actions such as substituting clean samples, tampering with specimens, flushing the system with fluids, or merely abstaining from drugs for three days will not affect the outcome of a hair test. The drug residues remain permanently embedded in hair. They cannot be washed or bleached out. Those with shaved heads will also be thwarted because the test can be performed using arm or leg hair.

Historical data. Because hair records drug use chronologically and roughly in proportion to consumption, hair testing can report the general pattern and quantity of drug abuse. This chronological and quantitative information can also substantiate or refute claims of inadvertent or unknowing ingestion of "spiked" food or drink.

Nonintrusive. Instead of supplying a urine sample, the test subject has a small snip of hair taken. The amount required is cosmetically undetectable, and by definition, is an observed collection, without the embarrassment of a urine sample. The hair sample can be in the physical control of the collector from the moment it is collected until sealed in its tamperproof envelope in view of the employee. The process allows no opportunity for the employee to substitute or tamper with the sample.

Retesting. A hair analysis is unique from other drug testing methods in that, if the results of the first test are challenged, the test subject can provide a second, newly collected sample for analysis that can duplicate the original testing by sampling the same time period. …

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