Firms Find Effective Way To Detect Drug Use: Hair


MANY people visit their barber or hairdresser before showing up for an important job interview. Now some job applicants are getting an extra trim during the application process.

As United States companies attempt to keep drug users off their payrolls, a relatively new screening process that uses hair samples is becoming increasingly popular. It is considered more accurate and less intrusive than urinalysis.

That's good news for Boston-based Psychemedics Corporation, the only company that commercially markets a drug-testing method using hair called RIAH, or radioimmunoassay of hair. The company, founded in 1987 by Werner Baumgartner, turned its first profit last year. The company has more than 325 corporate clients, including banks, manufacturers, retailers, mining operations, hotels, and casinos.

According to some government studies, two-thirds of drug users are currently employed, and 44 percent admit selling drugs to coworkers. ``The real key to beating the drug problem in the United States and in the world is really not going to be supply reduction ... it's really going to be demand reduction,'' says Raymond Kubacki Jr., president of Psychemedics.

As drugs are ingested, the deposits are absorbed into the bloodstream and become entrapped in the core of the hair. These ingested drugs remain in the hair and cannot be washed or bleached out and do not diminish with time. Because hair grows at a rate of about one-half inch a month, the hair closest to the head holds information on a person's drug use for the past month. Psychemedics' process, which Mr. Kubacki says works on all hair types, uses a 1 1/2 inch hair sample containing 50 to 60 strands (about the thickness of a pencil point).

RIAH tests for five standard drugs: cocaine, marijuana, opiates, methamphetamine, and phencyclidine (PCP). The process liquefies the hair and then chemically analyzes the sample, much like urinalysis. The company says it retests all positive samples.

Although hair analysis has only captured about 1 percent of the drug-testing market so far, it has numerous advantages over the far more common urinalysis, Kubacki says. Hair analysis provides a wider window of detection. While urine tests typically detect drug use within a two to four day period, Psychemedics' method provides a 90-day drug history.

Drug users ``can't beat the system,'' Kubacki says. With urinalysis, users can tamper with or substitute the sample or simply abstain from using drugs several days before the test. Since drugs remain in the hair shaft roughly in proportion to the amount ingested, hair analysis also provides information on the quantity of drugs consumed and the historic pattern of drug use, Kubacki says.

If an employee contests the test results, the company will do a second test using another hair sample.

Steelcase Corporation, a manufacturer of office furniture based in Grand Rapids, Mich. - and a Psychemedics client - compared the results of urine tests and hair tests for 774 job applicants over a period of several years. The study showed that hair analysis detected an 18 percent rate of drug use, compared with 2.7 percent uncovered by urinalysis.

The FBI has used hair testing to detect drug use for several years and each test costs about $1,500, Kubacki says. RIAH tests cost about $65 or less, depending on the number of people tested, he adds. That compares with $25 to $35 for urinalysis.

But the long-term economics are a clear advantage, Kubacki says. The National Institute of Drug Abuse estimates that each drug user costs an employer about $7,000 annually. If a company can screen out more drug users with hair analysis than with urinalysis, that firm will save money, Kubacki says.

SOME researchers contend that someone walking through a marijuana smoke-filled room could collect the active ingredients from the drug in his or her hair, resulting in skewed test results. But Kubacki says Psychemedics' detection process looks for metabolites - evidence of the drug that can only enter the system through ingestion.

``It certainly looks like [hair analysis] will have a number of advantages in the future for long-term group-testing purposes,'' says Ian Tebbett, a forensic toxicologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

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