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Hair Follicle Testing Draws Supporters

By Sandy Long
Posted Nov 11th 2013 2:17AM

What is the difference between urine and hair testing for illegal drugs?

dr._joseph_hunn_at_gas_chromatograph_1965_440.jpgUrine testing can only detect drugs used in the last 72 hours, hair testing can detect as far back as the length of the hair tested; though companies usually only test 3 inches of hair going back a month an inch so 90 days. In hair testing, up to 150 strands of hair are clipped usually from several different places on the head. In people with no head hair or very thin hair, hair from other parts of the body may be used. The hair is tested first using Enzyme Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA) then in a Gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) unit to verify.

While there are several ways to mask drug use in urine, when used, chemicals from the drugs are broken down into metabolites, which are absorbed by the blood and sent thru the body. Once these metabolites enter the cells of the hair follicle, they remain trapped in the hair shaft. This makes it possible to detect the presence of the drug by analyzing the hair sample. The metabolites cannot be removed from the hair shaft.

The main issue with hair follicle testing is that it can take up to a week for drugs to turn into metabolites and be found in the hair. Also, different people have different times that their hair grows above the scalp which can delay the metabolites showing up.

There are some drugs that will carry to a non user, crack cocaine is the main one. Marijuana would have to be smoked in a small enclosed area near someone for a long period of time for it to be absorbed by a non users hair.

Where did this all start in the trucking industry?

In May of 2006 thru September of 2010, “JB Hunt did a comparison of 45,970 paired hair and DOT urine tests on the same individuals. The results were astounding, with 2987 (6.5%) testing positive with hair tests, but only 488 (1.06%) testing positive with urinalysis.” ( It was not long before other carriers, Schneider and CR England, found the same percentages in their dual testing programs. The results drew both supporters of hair follicle drug testing and those against it.

Based on the above findings, the findings of other carriers using hair follicle testing, and pushed by the ATA, H.R. 6641, introduced by Rep. Reid Ribble (R-WI), would require the FMCSA to conduct a pilot study on testing hair samples of truck drivers for illegal drug use. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN) was a co-signer on this bill.

86533178_XS.jpgAt this time, the only drug testing method required and recognized by the DOT/FMCSA is urine testing. Therefore, if a carrier wants to hair test their employees for drug use using hair testing, they may do so, but while it may allow the carrier not to hire someone who tests positive using the hair method, they may not tell another carrier about the false finding and they still will have to do urine testing which is reportable. This last increases the cost to drug test a driver.

Hair testing can cost as much as $150.00 per test, while a urine test is approximately $40.00. The carriers’ using the hair testing cites increased safety as a major benefit and justifies the increased costs. ATA Chairman, Mike Card, president of Combined Transport, said in an article from Fleet Owner, “No fleet wants to put the safety of the public at risk by putting an impaired driver behind the wheel of one of its trucks. More effective drug testing procedures can help us make sure that doesn’t happen.”

While the actual cost of hair follicle testing is higher, the time lost in going to a clinic is less. Anyone with minimal training can take hair for testing. For instance, a person in human resources can be easily trained in taking samples when the driver is stopping by the terminal for other business. This saves time for the driver and not losing productivity while going to the clinic and waiting their turn.

Who is against hair follicle testing?

drug-test-on-hair.jpgContrary to some who believe that the only people who are against more stringent testing are ones who have something to hide, that is never mentioned in conversations among truckers about hair follicle testing. There are several reasons many drivers are against hair testing for drug use.

Heather, a long time local driver says, “Safety is the only issue here that matters. Are they operating the vehicle under the influence now, not whether they had a joint three months ago on vacation.”

Bob has concerns about storage of DNA information, “I do not want just anyone having access to my DNA, what business of my company is that?” He might have a point as hair samples have to be kept in a chain of command for 2 years. However, to obtain DNA, the root of the hair must be present and in hair drug testing, the hair is not pulled out, it is clipped at the scalp above the root.

Pam, a stylish driver worries about her expensive hairstyle. “I pay good money to keep my hair looking good; I do not want someone clipping out several strands at a time every 90 days or so.”

Many agree with owner operator David who said, “What next? Are they going to want to do blood tests next, or MRIs, or gun residue testing after my hometime to see if I own a gun?”

The upshot

To allow hair testing to be recognized the FMCSA would have to make studies, do proposed rule making and the rest of the regulatory process, and there does not seem to be much interest in proceeding at this time. Of course, that depends on how bill H.R. 6641 does, congress may required FMCSA to proceed.

The FMCSA is going forward with the drug-testing clearinghouse. The clearinghouse rule would establish a database of drivers who have either failed a drug or alcohol test or refused to take one. It would also require carriers to submit reports when a driver fails or refuses a test. The rule would also give carriers the option of checking the database when drivers apply with an applicant’s written consent. The clearinghouse was required in MAP-21 highway funding bill.

While any change to procedures in long standing always carries controversy, hair testing will eventually become common in the workplace as more carriers start using hair testing. Anything to promote safety on the highways, and drugs are still an issue with some drivers coming into the industry so the writing is on the wall. Like it or not, the probability the FMCSA will move on this at some point in the future is high especially with the powerful groups pushing for it.


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