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July 18, 2001
Drug Tests Receiving More Challenges
Mor
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e employers are using drug testing, new methods of detecting illegal drugs are coming into use - and more employees are challenging the science and fairness behind the practice, according to USA Today.

Employers maintain that testing is accurate and increasingly necessary to lower injury rates and absenteeism costs.

Critics contend that it has ruined the careers of too many innocent people. They question the accuracy of even the newer testing methods.

The debate affects a growing number of Americans. More than 65 percent of major employers test for drugs today, according to the American Management Association. That compares with about 20 percent in 1987.

"There are some real problems," Robert Morus, a Delta pilot and an executive vice president of the Air Line Pilots Association, tells USA Today. "Labs are doing tests in the cheapest way possible and being cavalier in their findings. People are being accused of a crime and losing their jobs. Their lives are turned upside down."

Though debate about drug testing has raged for decades, a new aggressiveness is taking hold.

Employees are filing lawsuits more often, and in some cases, juries are awarding hundreds of thousands of dollars. Unions are trying to block government regulations that would require more firms to test for workers who try to cheat on drug tests.

For their part, employers are not backing down. They say tests are accurate. Procedures protect workers from false positives, they add, and testing is needed because drug use on the job is rampant. A 1997 study by the government's Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, found the rate of illicit drug use among full-time workers to be 7.7 percent.

At Home Depot, for instance, signs in many of its stores alert prospective job candidates that they can expect to be tested for drugs if they apply.

"You almost have to do it for self defense. If you don't, you get everybody else's risks," says Layne Thome, director of associate services at Home Depot in Atlanta.

He adds that employers who don't test can be seen as a haven for drug users. "On the job, people feel safer. Once we began testing after accidents, we saw an immediate decrease in worker-compensation claims."

According to the American Management Association, some of the reported benefits of testing include lower accident rates, fewer disability claims, and decreases in violence and absenteeism.

But anyone thinking that technical advances have quelled fears about inaccurate test results is wrong.

In particular, critics have targeted validity tests, which are meant to ensure a urine sample hasn't been adulterated or diluted to hide drug use. Critics say the validity tests are too often inaccurate.

But opponents also are setting their sights on other methods of testing. Products that allow drug use to be detected in sweat by wearing a Band-Aid-like device have been criticized as impractical and prone to false positives from external contamination.

Likewise, on-site tests that give employers instant results are catching on, but critics say those may give too many false positives.

And testing hair for drugs has been criticized on several fronts. In 1997, the National Institute on Drug Abuse warned "there may be significant ethnic bias in hair testing for cocaine." Critics say that's because the test causes more positive readings for people with darker hair, such as Asians and African-Americans.

Providers of the tests reject those claims.

"We do an extensive washing of hair (to prevent) external contamination," says Ray Kubacki, president and CEO of Cambridge, Mass.-based Psychemedics, which provides hair-testing analysis. "And the darker-hair issue is all baloney. There is no basis for that whatsoever. This is an important tool for employers."

But critics say labs are not foolproof.

The Department of Health and Human Services inspected 61 federally certified labs where validity testing is done. About 300 results at 30 labs were canceled after they were found to be questionable.

Supporters say that's a small number, since about 13 million specimens were reviewed. But that risk is still unacceptable, according to some union leaders who say the number of questionable tests may be far higher.

To view the USA Today article, click here.
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