Hair Testing to Identify Older Evidence of Drug Use Moving Forward
Written by Lucas Kibby, CleanFleet
Quest Diagnostics’s reported in September that workforce drug use reached a 10-year high with 200,000 hair tests showing the greatest increase. Now, beyond the private sector, there are signs that hair testing is gaining traction.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is in the process of evaluating hair testing as a potential option to the federal employee screening process. They expect to release guidance by the end of 2016.
Also, members of the Alliance for Driver Safety & Security (the Trucking Alliance) have petitioned the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) for exemptions that would allow them to use hair testing in lieu of urine testing to comply with pre-employment drug testing regulations for truck drivers, instead of waiting for an HHS decision.
The Science of Hair Testing
Hair testing has a long 90-day testing window because as new hair cells form in the hair follicle, they absorb molecules of substances circulating in the blood. Those molecules get embedded into the hair cells, creating a permanent, chemical record that stays in the hair as it grows out of the skin. Samples can be taken from the head, arms, back, beard, etc.
Due to this permanent chemical record, hair testing offers more information than urine tests and employers are using hair testing for pre-employment as it may show a drug use trend over time. This is especially useful during the current opioid epidemic for many companies.
The technology of hair testing has also seen dramatic improvement over the last 25 years, according to a presentation made by drug testing expert J. Michael Walsh in 2013.
The argument against hair testing
Hair testing is approved by the FDA, but the federal government doesn’t recognize hair as a reliable sample for federally regulated programs. Studies have indicated that hair can absorb drugs in the environment and may show higher concentrations in dark-colored hair.
Like cigarettes, smoked drugs such as marijuana, crystal meth, and crack cocaine can contaminate the air and hair around them, according to a report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The report also points out that close contact with a drug user could also contaminate hair.
Labs are supposed to take steps to prevent that kind of contamination by pre-washing the hair. However, the effectiveness of this has been under some scrutiny.
Another argument against hair testing today is that some studies found different hair types bind drugs differently, due to the concentration of melanin, the pigment that darkens hair.
A 2010 study concluded that melanin content plays an important role in the degree of incorporation of morphine, codeine and their metabolites into hair. This has also been concluded for amphetamines in a 2012 study.
Major Trucking Companies pushing for Hair Testing
J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Knight Transportation, Maverick Transportation, and Dupré Logistics, all members of the Trucking Alliance, use hair testing protocols within their business for pre-employment drug testing.
Many of these companies had drivers pass the mandatory urine drug test but failed the hair test. After being denied employment, the Trucking Alliance fear that many of these drivers likely found work at other trucking companies, because there is no way to share those positive hair test results with other businesses as a typical driver files only requires employers to inquire about DOT authorized drug tests.
Instead of waiting for HHS to lead the way in approving hair testing, the Trucking Alliance is using hair testing for new hires under their own company authority. They believe that HHS is expected to request more time to develop its guidelines, causing further steps that would require DOT and FMCSA to announce notices and rulemakings before a final rule is mandated to enable hair testing as an alternative to urine testing, which could take years.
To ensure their own safety record is not affected, this is the route that these companies are taking now. Companies hiring drivers may also request for non-DOT drug and alcohol tests for pre-employment purposes.
Hair testing is available at our CleanFleet clinic locations
Have more questions or looking to add hair testing to your drug and alcohol policy? Call CleanFleet at 503-479-6082. To see how hair testing compares with urine and saliva testing, click here.