New Technology Is Expensive And Not Without Serious Flaws, Concedes HHS
Washington, DC: Guidelines proposed Tuesday by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) would allow federal agencies to collect samples of employees’ hair, sweat and saliva to test for illicit drugs. The proposed changes, which are expected to become final in 180 days, significantly alter existing federal regulations that allow drug testing programs to only collect and screen urine for evidence of illicit drug use.
About 400,000 federal workers are subject to federal drug testing, and stand to be impacted by the new regulations. In 2000, the most recent year for which figures are available, urine tests were performed on 106,493 federal workers at a cost of $6.1 million, according to the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) – which sets and oversees the federal drug testing guidelines. Of those tested, 532 persons tested positive for illicit drugs, as a cost to taxpayers of $11,466 per positive test result.
Alternative testing technology, specifically hair testing, is more expensive than urinalysis.
NORML Foundation Executive Director Allen St. Pierre criticized any expansion of the current federal regulations, emphasizing that the changes will neither increase workplace safety nor production. “These tests, in particular hair testing, are for the most part unproved procedures unsupported by the scientific literature or well-controlled clinical studies,” he said. “In addition, these tests do little, if anything, to detect an employee’s actual impairment on the job – which should be the employer’s primary concern. Rather, these tests allow employers to go on a virtual fishing expedition of their employee’s private, off-the-job personal habits and practices, none of which are the employers’ business.”
According to SAMHSA, hair testing, saliva testing, and sweat patch testing all have significant limitations regarding their real-world application.
In the case of hair testing, which detects drug metabolites that have passively diffused from the blood stream to the base of the hair follicle, the agency warns that both environmental contamination and hair color can significantly impact the accuracy of the test. “The role of hair color is… a major concern,” SAMHSA says, noting that “data show that higher concentrations of some drugs are found in dark hair when compared to blond or red hair.” Nevertheless, the agency concludes, “Despite these suspected limitations, the department still proposes to go forward with incorporating this new technology as an alternative to urine for Federal agencies,” which engage in pre-employment and random testing.
Environmental contamination also may negatively effect the accuracy of oral testing, which detects the presence of parent drugs in the saliva. “Further scientific study is needed to be able to differentiate between whether the parent drug was present in the oral cavity due to drug use or environmental contamination, i.e. the individual was present in a room where others smoked marijuana, for example,” SAMHSA says. As a result, the proposed regulations encourage agencies to also collect a urine sample “at the same time the oral fluid specimen is obtained” for confirmation testing.
Regarding the efficiency of sweat patch testing, which detects the presence of both parent drugs and drug metabolites in the sweat while the patch is applied to the skin, SAMHSA notes, “The Department knows from direct experience … that some individuals may not be able to wear the sweat patch for the optimal period of time.” The agency further noted that the majority of sweat patch technology is not FDA-approved.
Other proposed changes to the federal government’s workplace drug testing guidelines include encouraging the use of rapid-response, point of collection devices for immunoassays, rather than certified laboratory technology. Specimens that test presumptively positive for drugs on these initial tests would then be referred to confirmatory testing at a lab. The new guidelines also mandate that all federal agencies must henceforward test for marijuana, cocaine, opiates, amphetamines, and phencyclidine (PCP), and possibly MDMA (Ecstasy).
Urine cutoff levels for cocaine metabolites and amphetamines will also be significantly lowered under the new guidelines.
For more information, please contact either Allen St. Pierre or Paul Armentano of the NORML Foundation at (202) 483-5500. The proposed federal workplace drug testing guidelines are available online at: