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Hair Follicle Drug Testing

Chaparral Steel Co. was dissatisfied with its employee drug testing program. Urinalysis revealed only if drugs had been used within days of the test — and there was always a concern about cheating.

“It got to the point that the guys had to go to the bathroom with a nurse looking through the window,” said Victor Swaim, protective services supervisor for the Midlothian, Texas-based company.

So the steelmaker hired Psychemedics Corp., a company that uses hair samples to test for drugs.

With the Cambridge-based company’s system, Chaparral could learn if employees had used drugs within the past three months. And, Swain said, workers were happy to be spared the humiliation of urinalysis.

By courting companies like Chaparral, Psychemedics is hoping to grab a piece of the now-booming market for drug testing. Psychemedics argues its hair-testing method is superior. But it’s a tough market to crack.

The number of companies testing employees for drugs has more than tripled since 1987, according to the American Management Association. But employers are generally satisfied with their programs and have little incentive to change, said Eric Greenberg of the New York-based association.

Hair drug testing costs up to $65, more than double the typical cost of urinalysis.

There are other hurdles for hair testing, too. Some say it is unreliable, biased against blacks and an invasion of privacy. But Psychemedics’ president and chief executive officer, Raymond Kubacki, dismisses those complaints.

“There just seems to be a lot of misinformation and that seems to have increased dramatically with our success,” he said. During the past two years, Psychemedics has doubled its corporate clients to 350. It reported its first annual profit last year, $953,000, or 5 cents a share, following a loss of $522,000, or 3 cents a share, in 1992.

Revenue came to $6.6 million, up from $4 million in 1992. But while Psychemedics is the market leader in hair testing, the business makes up little more than 1 percent of the entire drug-testing industry, the management association says. Psychemedics, which is traded publicly on the Nasdaq stock market, was founded in 1987. Among its main investors are leaders of Blockbuster Entertainment Corp., including chairman H. Wayne Huizenga.

Psychemedics’ hair-testing process is based on the principle that whenever drugs are consumed, traces enter the bloodstream and reach the hair.

“You can’t bleach it out or dye it out. It’s there permanently,” Kubacki said.

It works like this: About 50 hairs, the width of a pencil point, are cut from near an employee’s scalp and are shipped to a laboratory in Culver City, Calif. There, they are washed and liquefied, then tested for specific drugs. Psychemedics tests the 1 1/2 inches closest to the scalp, representing the most recent three months of growth.

Some are critical of the technique.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes all employee drug testing, argues that employers have no right to know if workers used drugs three months previously, said Milind Shah, a senior fellow for the group.

Some say that drugs are more likely to be detected in dark hair, thus representing discrimination against blacks.

The ACLU and others argue hair testing is too likely to detect drugs even if workers didn’t use any. Just being in a room where drugs are smoked could be enough for a false positive, critics say. Dr. Edward Cone, chief of the chemistry and drug metabolism section at the National Institute of Drug Abuse in Baltimore, worries that hair “being a good filter that it is, will pick up the residues in the air.” The Navy once considered using hair for drug testing, but rejected the idea because of concerns about false positives.

But Kubacki said false positives are virtually impossible with Psychemedics’ process.

“In order to get enough in your hair that it would register, you would have to be in a phone booth with seven people smoking marijuana or crack for eight hours a day for a week,” he said. His view is backed by Tom Mieczkowski, a criminology professor at the University of South Florida. Mieczkowski said his studies have found hair drug testing is more effective at detecting the use of cannabis derivatives, such as marijuana or hashish. And false positives, he said, are unlikely.

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