Hair Tests: Unreliable and Discriminatory

June 27, 1999 12:00 am

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NEW YORK — Three years ago, Jerome McCall, 30, was kicked off the police force after failing the Police Department’s new hair test for drugs. Samples of his hair tested positive for cocaine, but McCall insists that he is innocent — and that the tests discriminate against African-Americans, the New York Daily News reported today.

Most scientists who study the chemistry and toxicology of drug testing agree with him.

“There is overwhelming evidence that there is color bias in hair testing,” said Dr. Bruce Goldberger, a toxicologist at the University of Florida. “The tests are accurate. The issues under debate are the origin of the drug and the potential for color bias.”

The American Civil Liberties Union says the spread of hair testing means trouble: “People seem to assume that because it’s a scientific test done in a lab, it must be a good thing,” Lewis Maltby, Executive Director of the ACLU’s Workplace Rights Project told the News.

According to the paper, hair testing relies on state-of-the-art biochemical technology to find microscopic traces of drugs in hair. Drugs can pass out of a person’s urinary system within a few days, but they can become embedded in hair for months or even years.

In theory, hair testing is much harder to evade than urinalysis, the standard drug-testing method. As a result, the hair-testing industry is booming.

However, the results of hair tests are being challenged in New Jersey, Alaska, Illinois and Florida, among other states. In New York, the McCall case, along with those of three other black officers, is scheduled to go before the state appeals court in July.

The paper reports that McCall’s appeal will focus on two major flaws scientists have detected in hair testing. First, they say, it is impossible to determine whether the drugs found in a person’s hair come from drug abuse or other factors, such as touching a drug addict or even being in a room where someone had been smoking crack.

McCall, a decorated transit cop who tested negative in urinalysis, was routinely exposed to drugs this way.

Second, scientists say, people with dark hair, and thus higher concentrations of melanin, are far more likely to test positive.

Because of these concerns, the federal government has not approved hair testing for its employees.

“The available research suggests there are significant scientific and procedural concerns that must be addressed,” wrote Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala in an 1996 letter obtained by the Sunday News.

While Psychemedics Corporation, the company used by the police department to conduct the tests, insists that studies prove the hair tests are not biased, scientists dispute the claim.

Meanwhile, McCall has had trouble finding work because of the stigma of failing a Police Department drug test.

“It’s like being in a cage and screaming,” McCall told the News. “And no one believes you.”

There has been much public outcry over hair testing, particularly when some Louisiana schools decided subject their students to the tests. Read our newswire at /news/1999/w061499a.html.

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