Pubdate: Tue, 20 Jan 2004
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Section: Page A17
Copyright: 2004 The Washington Post Company
Author: Christopher Lee
Bookmark: (Drug Testing)


Bush Administration Considers Sampling Hair, Saliva, Sweat

Federal workers who submit to drug screening soon may have their saliva, 
sweat or hair tested as the Bush administration increases efforts to deter 
and detect illegal drug use among 1.6 million civilian employees.

Officials have relied on urine samples alone in the federal government's 
nearly two-decade-old drug-testing program, begun in 1986 when President 
Ronald Reagan issued an executive order declaring that the federal 
workplace be drug-free. Bush administration officials want to give agencies 
the option of using the alternative tests to catch drug use that urine 
tests may miss because of masking agents or because an employee took the 
drugs weeks earlier.

The main goal is to drive home the message to federal workers that it is 
not worth risking your job to take drugs, officials said.

"This isn't a 'gotcha' kind of system," said Robert L. Stephenson II, 
director of the division of workplace programs in the Substance Abuse and 
Mental Health Services Administration. The agency, part of the Department 
of Health and Human Services, sets guidelines and oversees drug-testing 
programs at federal agencies. "This is a fair, objective, scientifically 
defensible program that is aimed at deterrence and in having everybody 
believe that if you actually use [drugs], we'll be able to detect it."

The division plans to publish proposed revisions to federal mandatory 
drug-testing guidelines in the Federal Register as soon as this month, 
Stephenson said.

The public will have 90 days to comment. After a final rule is adopted, it 
will take at least six months to implement in most federal workplaces, 
Stephenson said. Moreover, the screening labs that work under contract to 
federal agencies would have to demonstrate that they can perform the new tests.

The proposal was first reported last week by the Associated Press.

Officials of federal employee unions said they will study the proposals 

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said 
her union previously has opposed sweat tests on the grounds that scientific 
studies have shown them to be unreliable. Her staff plans to review the 
track record of saliva and hair tests as well.

Mark Roth, general counsel for the American Federation of Government 
Employees, said the union fought successful court battles in the 1980s to 
force the government to narrow its broad drug-testing program to workers in 
"safety-sensitive" jobs.

"To the extent that they are not talking about expanding the scope of 
employees under the program, . . . we probably would not have any vehement 
objections to what they are doing, so long as it's limited to the more 
accurate and less intrusive forms of testing," he said.

Federal drug-testing efforts focus on about 400,000 federal employees who 
have security clearances, carry firearms, deal with public safety or 
national security, or are presidential appointees. Such employees are 
routinely tested when they apply for jobs, and many are subject to random 
drug tests throughout their careers.

Other civilian workers typically would only be tested if they were involved 
in a workplace accident or displayed signs of possible drug use on the job, 
officials said.

In fiscal 2000, the most recent year for which figures are available, drug 
tests were performed on 106,493 workers at 118 agencies at a cost of $6.1 
million. The number who test positive hovers consistently at about one-half 
of 1 percent, he said.

Urine tests cost about $20 to $50 each, and the prices of saliva and sweat 
tests are similar, Stephenson said. Hair tests cost more but are expected 
to become cheaper as they become more widely used, he said.

Agencies could pick the test that best fits their needs, he said. For 
example, a hair test, which can show drug use from months earlier, might be 
used to screen job applicants. But an employee involved in an accident 
might have an oral swab to determine whether drugs were in his system.

Some employee advocates complain that the new tests are not as accurate as 
a urine test. Hair tests in particular can come back positive simply 
because a person -- a police officer, say -- was in a room where drugs were 
used, they say.

"There's a lot of things not to like [about urine testing], but at least 
we've reached a stage where you don't see a lot of false positives when you 
use the right labs," said Lewis Maltby, president of the National 
Workrights Institute, a nonprofit employee rights group. "Sweat and saliva 
testing have potential, but they aren't ready for prime time. . . . Hair 
testing is junk science."

Federal workers aren't the only ones with a stake in the proposed changes. 
If the government adopts alternative tests, many private employers are 
likely to follow suit, officials at testing companies said.

William M. Greenblatt, chief executive of New York-based Sterling Testing 
Systems Inc., said: "An argument can be made that 'Would the government 
accept it if it wasn't an accurate science?' " The company performs half a 
million tests a year, most of them urine tests, for such clients as Con 
Edison, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and The Washington 
Post, he said.

J. Michael Walsh, a former HHS official who helped design the federal 
drug-testing program in the 1980s, said the testing industry has been 
pressing the government to adopt the alternative tests. Still, scientific 
advances mean it is "very reasonable" for federal officials to examine 
whether such tests are worth using, said Walsh, now a consultant on 
substance abuse policy whose clients include The Post.

"The industry sort of believes that once this thing hits the Federal 
Register that things are going to happen quickly," he said. "I don't think 
that's true. My experience has been that change comes very slowly in this 
whole workplace arena. It's such a litigious area. I think these big 
corporations are very happy with what they are doing. And unless there is 
some huge economic incentive to change, change is not going to come rapidly."
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman