Hair as a specimen for drug testing poses a number of issues. There are open questions about the scientific validity of results of hair drug testing. And, questions about its effectiveness in taking action if positive result comes back. Typically, employers are required to take action only if a positive indicates current use by the individual. Hair testing indicates possible positive illegal drug use many days or weeks in the past.
The science behind the process using hair to test for illegal drugs is currently being challenged by a Police Officer in Boston. The plaintiff alleges that the hair drug test is flawed particular for African American females.
The article states that using hair as a specimen for drug testing was developed in the late ‘60s, when an Austrian chemist named Werner Baumgartner decided to piggyback on the work of his wife, Annette Baumgartner. She was working at the Aerospace Corporation, trying to figure out what toxins might be ingested by onlookers during a shuttle launch, and Werner realized that he could look for drug exposure with the strategies she developed. Substances floating around the blood eventually get incorporated into the hair as it grows—either through tiny blood vessels or the oil and sweat glands that surround the hair follicle—and drugs found inside the hair itself, he realized, would be harder to cheat on than urine or saliva tests. They’d linger longer in the sample, too.
In 1985, a navy chemist named David Kidwell was tasked with studying the test’s effectiveness—and soon, he began to have reservations. In 1993, he published the results of an experiment in which he soaked the hair in a mix of cocaine derivative and water, then washed it repeatedly before performing the drug test. Despite his attempts to remove the external contamination, the tests came back positive.
Research from Kidwell and other scientists has shown that both the amount of melanin in the hair and some chemical treatment involved in styling makes a difference in how much contamination the hair can absorb. Kidwell has appeared as an expert witness in many lawsuits about the validity of the tests over the last 20 years.
Though the plaintiff in the case has already been reinstated, the risk of future false positives still looms over her peers, both in and out of law enforcement. The result of her discrimination case, which is still ongoing, should inform the use of a potentially flawed test—and hopefully spur the development of others.
We have highlighted problems using hair as a specimen for drug testing. The article highlighted in this post correctly points out that while hair testing can test for drugs use months in the past, it may not reveal recent drug use. What is the ramification of that fact? Because employers can only take adverse action if an individual is guilty of recent drug use. In fact, if an employer does use hair testing and finds illegal drug use in the past, the individual may be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
And what happens if you have to collect a hair specimen from the individual in the picture?
What are the alternatives? Easy, use either urine or oral fluid as the specimen. Both have years of case law successfully supporting its use. If you wish to further discuss, give us a call at 410.494.0232