5 common ways to test for drugs and alcohol
by Neoteryx Microsampling on Dec 28, 2020 9:00:00 AM
Substance abuse, or drug and alcohol misuse, poses a significant challenge in many areas of society, but its implications in work environments are particularly alarming.
Substance-abusing employees can detrimentally impact a company's productivity and bottom line. Data from the National Safety Council paints a stark picture:
- Drug-abusing employees are 2-5 times likelier to be tardy, absent, exhibit aggressive behavior, or suffer injuries at work.
- Workplace accidents due to drug abuse account for 50%, and drug-related theft constitutes 40%.
- A staggering 70% of the 14.8 million American drug users are part of the workforce.
- Among illegal drug consumers, 74% are employed and are responsible for 40% of industrial fatalities in the U.S.
Given these concerns, numerous corporate entities have introduced drug-testing protocols to identify and manage substance abuse among employees. The types of tests are shaped by various determinants, including regional and federal regulations and the specific substances being screened.
How Long Do Drugs and Alcohol Stay in the System?
The longevity of a drug's detectable presence in the human body varies considerably. For example, the euphoric effects of cocaine might last merely 15-30 minutes, but the drug can persist in a person's system much longer.
Similarly, LSD's psychoactive impact in the system lasts 6-12 hours. Alcohol's dynamics are more multifaceted: post-consumption, it can be identified in a person's breath and blood for nearly a day. Alcohol can be traced in urine for upwards of 80 hours.
The strategy for analyzing biological samples to screen for drugs and alcohol correlates to how long a substance remains in the system. While certain drugs fade rapidly, others linger for extended periods.
Factors influencing a drug's stay in the human body include:
- Consumption regularity
- Individual hydration
- Health conditions
- Metabolic efficiency
- Physical activity levels
- Specific drug type
Five Types of Drug Tests
The drug or alcohol tests performed by a toxicology lab or other laboratory may vary depending on the type of substance or drug being screened, and the types of samples needed for lab analysis. The most common drug test types include:
1. Breath Test
Law enforcement officers often use the breath test technique to screen for alcohol consumption in drivers. The traffic control officers use a breathalyzer, which tests the exhaled breath and water vapor for blood plasma alcohol concentration. It’s a popular method because collecting the samples is non-invasive and convenient for roadside testing. Based on recent research, future roadside alcohol testing may include finger-prick blood collection, or microsampling, to detect PEth, an alcohol biomarker in the blood.
2. Blood Test
While blood testing is more invasive than breath tests and urine tests, it’s the most effective at detecting specific alcohol concentration levels in a person's system. Certain blood tests show the precise levels of intoxication 24 hours after drinking.
Because traditional blood draws are invasive, involving a needle poke in the arm, many labs and other facilities now offer less invasive blood sample collection methods. Volumetric absorptive microsampling technology is a quick and easy way to collect small blood samples for analysis using a finger stick with a lancet.
This method collects blood "microsamples" from a drop or two of blood on the fingertip. It is quicker and less invasive than conventional blood sample collection techniques like venipuncture and can be performed in remote locations.
The microsamples from these devices can be analyzed in the lab following a dried blood spot (DBS) workflow. Results from toxicology lab or clinical lab blood tests can be more detailed than urine tests. Blood can reveal more than just the presence of drugs. Researchers have discovered that PEth, a direct biomarker of alcohol consumption, can be detected in even small blood microsamples, providing robust information.
Blood microsample bioanalysis can show drug metabolites in the blood, and the actual level of drugs or alcohol in the blood.
The hemaPEN and Mitra devices have been shown to collect high-quality blood samples. In Europe and other regions where these devices can be applied for clinical use, they are used in some drug and alcohol treatment facilities to collect blood samples. These devices are difficult to tamper with after sampling, reducing the risk of people who are in addiction recovery from tampering with or substituting samples — a problem that occurs when urinalysis is used in such programs.
3. Urine Test
The urine test is the most common method used to detect illicit drugs. The "pee-in-a-cup" sample collection is non-invasive; it doesn’t involve the use of needles. Urine samples can contain high concentrations of parent drugs (drugs being tested for) and drug by-products.
However, urine samples are less effective than some other methods at detecting drugs and alcohol because they have a short retrospective period. In other words, a urine test is less likely to detect regular drug use beyond a 48-window period. Another drawback of urine testing is the ease and opportunity for tampering with or switching out the samples.
4. Saliva Test
Saliva testing is another minimally invasive drug testing method. However, saliva is only useful in testing for recent drug use. For example, saliva testing for marijuana can only provide accurate results if the subject has smoked or used cannabis within 4-10 hours.
5. Hair Test
Drug metabolites enter the blood vessels in the scalp. The hair filters the drugs and keeps a permanent record of the drug use. This means a user who took cocaine, marijuana, or other drugs several months ago may still test positive for those drugs because the drug residues remain in the hair.
Learn more about microsampling for toxicology and other fields: