The Heroin Spike

Tuesday, March 1, 2011
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A new push by the government to root out heroin users from within its ranks -- along with a new test -- may help to better identify the junkies among us in the workplace.

Late last year, the U.S. Department of Transportation joined the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to require urine testing for heroin use in private-sector, safety-sensitive workers. Previously, such a test was only performed when workers tested positive for morphine.

Among the transportation workers subject to the new rule, urine testing for heroin use revealed a nearly 20-percent jump in positive results, compared to the previous program, according to preliminary data. Now, an alternative test that does not require a supervised bathroom visit can also help organizations root out the nefarious narcotic.

Oral-fluid testing, which detects recent drug use, is an observed collection that can be easily administered with a swab, and there are no known adulterants that can be used to tamper with a sample.

In an analysis by Madison, N.J.-based Quest Diagnostics Employer Solutions of more than 320,000 oral-fluid samples taken from the general U.S. workforce between January and June 2010, the process also revealed approximately five times more heroin use than previously believed. (The data comes from The Quest Diagnostics Drug Testing Index, which has been tracking positivity rates since 1988.)

"Oral-fluid testing is helping employers find more heroin users," says the aptly named Dr. Barry Sample, director of science and technology for QDES, adding that "alternative specimen testing, such as oral-fluid and hair testing, has added convenience and flexibility to employer drug-testing programs."

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One observer does say there's "legitimate concern within the medical community about testing for the heroin marker," citing academic research in the Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences journal that points out the marker is a natural product that is found in the mammalian brain. Anthony Citrano, a cultural analyst based in Venice, Calif., also cautions that the true danger to an effective organization is not heroin, but in not trusting your employees.

"With extraordinarily few exceptions, I think drug testing is a bad idea," he says. "Besides that, we test for all the wrong things. Why don't we test for alcohol? Prescription drugs? It's a bit weird to me that a person can go on an alcohol-and-valium bender every weekend and keep their job, but if they smoked a joint two months ago, they could find themselves fired."

Michael O'Brien can be emailed at

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