Hair tests raise doubts

Analysis: The use of hair samples to find drug traces is drawing criticism for its alleged inaccuracy and bias against dark-haired people.

May 30, 1999|By Leslie Kean and Dennis Bernstein

THE POPULARITY of hair testing to detect drug use is skyrocketing nationwide. But with the increased popularity comes controversy over the accuracy of the method. People in different parts of the country claim they have received false results through hair testing.

Employers, including some of the nation's biggest corporations, favor hair testing over urinalysis because it can reveal drug use from months earlier, rather than from only the previous few days. General Motors, Anheuser-Busch, BMW and Rubbermaid are among the more than 1,000 companies employing the test. Hair testing is also used by the police departments of several major cities.

The controversy surrounding hair testing stems from years of scientific research. Doubts about hair testing's accuracy have been raised by several federal and private concerns -- from the National Institute of Drug Abuse to the Society of Forensic Toxicologists. The scientific consensus is that the process is not sufficiently reliable for widespread use.

Evidence also points to a possible bias against people with dark hair.

Althea Jones, an African-American mother of two, says she is a victim of hair testing's inaccuracy. Her lifelong dream was to be a police officer, but when she applied for admission to the Chicago Police Academy, it requested a sample of her hair. The results came back positive for drug use.

"I was shocked. I couldn't believe it," said Jones. "I don't even smoke or drink. I was heartbroken by this."

She was denied admission to the academy. She is now a criminal justice major at Chicago State University.

Jones and seven other Chicagoans, who say they received erroneous hair-test results when they applied to the Police Academy, have filed complaints of racial discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The case is under investigation.

"The consensus of scientific opinion is that there are still too many unanswered questions for [hair analysis] to be used in employment situations," Edward Cone, NIDA's leading researcher on the test, said in June. In a recent interview, Cone said hair testing "is not ready for use yet, where people's lives are at stake."

The Society of Forensic Toxicologists stands by its 1990 report, which said: "The use of hair analysis for employees and pre-employment drug testing is premature and cannot be supported by the current information on hair analysis for [drug abuse]."

D. Bruce Burlington, a doctor and director of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Devices and Radiological Health, testified on Capitol hill in July that "many scientific questions remain ... about the effectiveness of hair testing for detecting drug use." No hair-testing laboratories have been approved by the FDA.

Burlington also raised another issue -- that hair testing might be racially biased.

"Dark hair, blond hair and dyed hair react differently, thus creating questions of equity among ethnic groups and genders," he said.

A U.S. Navy study released by NIDA in 1995 shows that the dark, coarse hair of African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians is more likely to retain external contamination, such as drug residues absorbed from the environment, and thus is more likely to test positive, even if the person never abused drugs. The issue of external contamination is particularly serious for police officers, who might be exposed to drugs on the job.

Hair testing cost Sgt. Duane Adens his U.S. Army career. Adens, an African-American father of five, had worked at the Pentagon for 14 years. In January 1997, he was less than six years from retirement and had received the highest possible performance rating in his last job evaluation, when he provided a hair sample for testing by army investigators. It was sent away for analysis, though Adens never signed off on the hair to identify it as his own, as regulations demand.

The results came back positive. Adens was stunned. He said he does not use drugs and had not been exposed to environmental contaminants. Indeed, seven urine tests he had taken between October 1996 and May 1998 -- most of them random tests required by the military -- came back negative.

Adens was brought before an Army court martial and, because of the hair-test results, received a bad-conduct discharge in July.

The possibility that Aden's results were a "false positive" is underscored by two cases in New York. In the first, three police department applicants -- all white -- were told that an analysis found evidence of drug use in their hair samples.

Outraged, two of the men sent hair samples for testing by other labs, which told them that the samples indicated no drug use.

In a second case, nine African-American police officers were dismissed three years ago because of a positive hair test -- though all nine had passed a series of random urine tests throughout their two-year probation periods. Soon after hearing of the positive results, one officer sent another sample of her hair to a different testing firm. That test came back negative.

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