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Paramedic Fights City Drug Test Standard

Since he was a teenager, David Hughes had his heart set on becoming a Chicago paramedic and was within days of graduating from the Fire Department’s academy when his long-held dream was blown apart by what he contends was a bagel.

Make that a poppy-seed bagel, along with a Fire Department drug testing policy that Hughes and his lawyers contend are outmoded and unfair.

Hughes has filed suit against the city in federal court seeking punitive and compensatory damages and reinstatement as a paramedic candidate.

But he said he would be willing to forgo the money.

“I don’t care about any of that stuff,” said Hughes, 30, who has wanted to work on a city ambulance since he was 18. “All I want to do is be a Chicago paramedic.”

Hughes tested positive for morphine in a random drug test, slightly exceeding the Fire Department’s maximum standard of 300 nanograms per milliliter of urine.

His suit contends that the threshold is unreasonably restrictive and ignores the science behind the federal government’s decision four years ago to increase its threshold positive finding to 2,000 nanograms.

As little as “half a thimble full” of poppy seeds can trigger a low positive reading,” said William Judge, who filed Hughes’ suit along with attorney John Lower.

When heroin or poppy seeds break down in the body, they produce morphine, experts say.

“You put something in your mouth and it comes out in your urine, and the laboratory literally can’t tell between heroin or a poppy-seed roll,” Judge said. “But unless it exceeds 2,000, it is presumed to be from food. […] This case simply wouldn’t exist if they simply followed the guidelines and scientific standards.”

The federal standard applies to federal employees and workers in industries such as trucking and aviation, which are regulated by Washington. But adoption of the thresholds by local governments isn’t mandated by law.

The city stands behind the Fire Department’s use of the 300-nanogram standard for opiates, said Jennifer Hoyle, a Law Department spokeswoman.

“It is more strict, but our position is that there is nothing that is illegal or inappropriate about that,” she said. “The federal guidelines are only guidelines, and each [city] department has discretion to set their own [standards] based on their needs and operational necessities. As long as it is applied evenly and across the board to members of that department, there is nothing wrong with that.”

Because of its safety-sensitive mission, the Fire Department also has a zero-tolerance policy for alcohol.

“That is not the same as other departments and other agencies,” Hoyle said. “Some places allow up to the legal limit of .08 percent, but the Fire Department doesn’t.”

The 2,000-nanogram threshold has been adopted by other city departments, Judge said.

Police officers are among employees held to that standard, a Police Department spokesman said.

Hughes said he was tied for valedictorian of his paramedic class last year and was runner-up for a physical fitness award when he was pulled aside about a week before graduation.

“My chief sat down next to me and asked, `Dave, are you clean?’” he recounted. “I laughed at him. My initial reaction was that it was just a mistake. I wasn’t too concerned about it.”

Reality set in after he was put on administrative leave and then fired.

His mother found the link between poppy seeds and positive drug test results in an Internet search, Hughes said.

He had eaten a poppy-seed bagel the day before his test, he said.

After his dismissal, Hughes joined a private ambulance company that provides service to Cicero. He also works part time for the River Grove Fire Department. His bosses know about his Chicago episode, he said.

“He’s an excellent paramedic and a hard worker,” said River Grove Deputy Fire Chief David Atkocaitis.

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