Bridgeport, Conn. -- The type of hair-follicle analysis that Bridgeport Mayor John M. Fabrizi underwent this month is cutting into urine testing turf as employers' favored way to screen workers for drug use.
Hair testing is more costly than urine testing, but advocates say it's more reliable, less invasive and reveals abuse over a much longer time.
"We are actually having some preliminary discussions about making the switch from urine testing to hair-strand testing," said Noreen McNicholas, spokeswoman for St. Vincent's Medical Center in Bridgeport. "There's definitely interest in it."
Fabrizi underwent testing earlier this month after the Connecticut Post took him up on an offer following his admission of cocaine use while in office. He initially passed a urine test in July. The Post then asked Fabrizi to submit to a hair-follicle test, which he also passed.
Urine testing remains standard for employee drug screening. It's cheap, quick and has more than 20 years of military research behind it, making it the test of choice for the federal government. At a typical cost of $50, urinalysis can show if someone is on drugs or has used them within the past four or five days.
Experts say urine tests are useful for random drug screening, a common practice in professions where safety is a concern. But for an ever-expanding list of employers, from Fortune 500 companies to casinos to school systems and metropolitan police departments, hair-follicle testing is the standard for weeding drug users out of their work force.
A few strands can tell an employer whether a person has used cocaine, PCP, heroin or marijuana for months in the past. Chemical traces of drugs remain in the hair long after they pass from the rest of the body. A half-inch strand can reveal drug use within a month; a 1-inch strand can provide a three-month picture. And if employees are bald or wear their hair shaved to the skin, body hair can be used.
Hair follicle analysis costs significantly more than urine testing, typically $100 to $150 per test. But toxicology experts, laboratories and federal government contractors say the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has proposed new rules, in the final state of revision, that are likely to make hair the prime specimen for drug testing.
"Hair testing is a highly, highly reliable way of testing for the presence of drugs when properly performed by a lab," said Dr. Bruce Goldberger, professor and director of toxicology at the University of Florida College of Medicine at Gainesville. "It's quite precise. And it offers a wider window for detecting drug use than urine testing."
Goldberger, who is president-elect of the Academy of Forensic Sciences, said the new rules will increase employers' confidence in hair-follicle analysis, and will likely prod the federal government to rely on hair for its drug-screening requirements.
"The rules set the stage for ensuring that all laboratories handle hair specimens the same way," Goldberger said.
It takes only 40 strands of hair, about an inch long, snipped from the back of the head to supply enough hair for testing, said Raymond Kubacki, president of Psychemedics Corp. in Boston.
Psychemedics is the only lab in the country to win U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for all its hair testing.
"It's not invasive at all," Kubacki said. "Anyone who goes on the Internet or who's been using drugs knows how to do that."
That's what the General Accounting Office learned in 2005 when it conducted an undercover investigation of products and strategies for defeating urine drug tests. Trawling the Internet and visiting businesses in and around Washington, D.C., GAO investigators found more than 400 widely available products for masking the presence of cocaine and marijuana. Some came with double-your-money-back guarantees if they didn't defeat the urine tests.
The products call into question the effectiveness of current drug-testing procedures, Robert Cramer, managing director of the GAO's Special Investigations unit, told a congressional subcommittee.
"The sheer number of these products and the ease with which they are marketed and distributed through the Internet present formidable obstacles to the integrity of the drug-testing process," he said.
Against the backdrop of such products, Psychemedics focuses exclusively on conducting workplace testing for drugs using hair samples. Its client list includes the Federal Reserve Bank, 250 school systems in 28 states, a number of Fortune 500 companies and dozens of major metropolitan police departments.
"Our testing in schools has proven to be a real deterrent to kids who may have thought about doing drugs," Kubacki said. "It's dissuaded a lot of them."
But hair testing is controversial. Employees have challenged findings, claiming specimens were improperly handled, the tests were contaminated or the lab staff improperly interpreted the results. Some have claimed the tests picked up "second-hand" drugs that got in their hair when they were near others smoking an illegal drug.
But Kubacki said the testing procedure eliminates drug residue from the environment.
"We put the hair through a rinse for four hours before it's tested," he said.
Complete Title: Hair Analysis Growing in Popularity as Way To Test Drug Use Source: Stamford Advocate, The (CT)
Published: August 17, 2006
Copyright: 2006 Southern Connecticut Newspaper, Inc.
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