Last updated: February 24, 2020
While it was supposed to reach the end of the road nearly two years ago, the quest for federally mandated drug testing using hair samples hasn’t gotten far. There are those who think that implementation of a mandated drug screening process using hair samples will be very beneficial in the war against drug addiction.
President Trump sided with members of Congress and a number of motor carrier executives that have grown impatient with missed deadlines. On October 24th, he signed a bill that includes requiring HHS (Department of Health and Human Services) to explain delays in issuing the mandatory federal hair testing guidelines. The bill stipulates December 24th as the deadline for reporting not only to explain delays, but, also, a projected schedule as to when the guidelines will be completed.
Potential flaws in this method
Progress has been hampered by the same scientific and technical issues that have plagued the plan since it’s beginning phases.
- The impact of hair color
- Contamination of hair specimens
According to a study conducted by the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health (PubMed.gov), these two types of hair do not test at the same levels with regard to drugs in the system as “normal” hair. The drug concentration levels change considerably in damaged and/or contaminated hair
The study on the hair samples of drug users in the group was intense; a single strand of hair was analyzed at a time. The level difference in drugs tested ranged from 40-60%. But, a few cases tested at just a 30% difference and morphine, specifically, tested with a mean difference percentage of above 60.
The conclusion is that damaged or environmentally contaminated hair does, indeed, retain different (lower) levels of drugs than normal, healthy hair.
Is hair testing ready for DOT drug testing
In an interview, Ron Flegel, Chairman of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Drug Testing Advisory Board, said those issues are unresolved and, so, still pose a problem.
He went on to say that this topic has been addressed in the proposal literature that has been reviewed by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). It is, now, being readied to send out for review by more than one hundred federal agencies.
Flegel feels progress in the right direction is being made and is looking forward to the proposal being referred on to the next phase of approval. The Office of Management and Budget will have up to 90 days to review before weighing in. Then, the proposal is off to all federal agencies for comment and review.
The DOT (Department of Transportation) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are, also, in the reviewers line-up.
All things considered, it sounds like it will be awhile before the kinks are all combed out and the mandatory hair follicle testing is in place. However, despite the flaws in this testing method, it still offers the greatest potential to identify drug use compared to other methods like urine or mouth swab drug testing.
Is it accurate as it stands?
Some would say, “Yes!”
Even if the levels differ greatly, the swing is not 100%. It doesn’t appear likely there would be any false negatives. But, there were no studies found on that note, so, perhaps, the degree of drug levels showing in chemically treated or environmentally contaminated hair may be below the minimum allowance. Therefore, giving a false negative result.
At any rate, the Trucking Alliance (Alliance for Driver Safety and Security) in Washington DC is among those pushing for a more effective drug testing law. They would like all people who apply for safety-sensitive jobs in the United States to verify they are drug free for up to 30 days prior to starting actual employment.
Some major trucking companies have been using hair follicle drug testing for years in addition to the federally mandated urine test. One reason being, the detection window for hair sample testing is 90 days vs a 30 day detection window for urine testing.
Case in point:
- In 2017, J.B. Hunt reported 1,213 people failed a hair sample drug test, but 9 out of 10 of them had passed a urine test.
- Since 2006, J.B. Hunt Transport has refused to employ 5,060 job applicants who failed a hair test, after passing their urinalysis.
- In both instances, many of these applicants have gone on to drive for other companies.
Consider those figures from just one company and, now, the vast number of trucking companies in the United States that only follow the federally mandated guidelines and administer a urine test. In all likelihood, the number of impaired drivers on the road is far higher than one would like to imagine..
“We’ve had 154 drivers at Maverick who failed their hair test, after they passed a urine test. Those 154 drivers are working for another company. They’re running up and down the road with our families and that is not acceptable.”
Dean Newell, Vice President of Safety and Driver Training at Maverick USA
All things considered, trucking and transport companies have a moral obligation not only to their employees, but to the public. The current standards for drug testing just aren’t enough. It’s time to take a fine-toothed comb through the federally mandated hair sample drug test proposal and smooth out those problem areas.
We must keep our roads as safe as we possibly can. Our families are on them, too, making them at risk every single day. We need to identify drivers who are intending to be or are out on our roads transporting goods all across our country under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
The opioid crisis in our country, alone, has reached epidemic proportions.
Addiction becomes a way of life and if a person is willing to throw caution to the wind and drive impaired by any substance, they need to be identified. It is the first step to realizing there is a problem and seeking help to resolve it.