Drug Screening: The pros and cons of each method

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According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the organization that certifies drug screening laboratories, 28.6 million people aged 12 or older reported that they had used an illicit drug in the past 30 days. That corresponds to roughly one in 10 Americans.

The use of illegal substances in the work place is an ever present threat against safety and productivity. It is important to understand what resources are available to help you screen for any potential risks your company may have and which methods best fit your current need.

Here is a brief summary of four of the most common screening options:

Urine

A common misconception is that a urine drug screen tests for traces of the drug itself inside of the urine, when in actuality, it is testing for the metabolites that the body produces while processing the substance, which remain in an individual’s system much longer that the drug itself.

Consequently, urine drug screens offer a much longer window of detection than other methods of screening. This window is what has caused urinalysis to become the primary method of occupational drug screening and the industry standard for detecting recent drug use, typically one to five days.

Urine drug screens are also currently the only method that is allowed for federally mandated testing, such as Department of Transportation regulated employees.

One of the downsides to urine testing is the potential for adulteration for non-observed tests. While there is no way to guarantee that a test has not been tampered with, there are options available to test the integrity of the samples that are provided. Creatinine and pH values are two of the common measurements used for ensuring the integrity of a urine specimen and are available at most major testing laboratories.

Saliva

Oral fluid’s strength is its accuracy detecting drug use within 36 hours of initial use. If an employee is suspected to have been under the influence in the past couple of days, an oral fluid test is the best option for confirming substance abuse in that time frame. As a result, oral fluid testing is a popular option for reasonable suspicion and post-accident screening scenarios. Unfortunately, this also makes it a poor choice for any kind of drug screen that an employee or applicant has had time to prepare for.

Unlike most urine drug screens, an oral fluid test is completely observed, which makes adulteration much more difficult for an employee who is being testing. Most oral fluid tests can be performed onsite at the place of employment, which reduces collection fees and productivity loss during the time of collection.

Hair

According to Quest Diagnostics, hair testing detects twice the number of positives as urine tests. This could be attributed to the much longer window of detection that hair screening offers. Unlike urine and saliva testing, which can be used effectively between one to five days, hair testing can detect drug use and patterns of drug use for up to three months.

This extended period of detection makes hair testing ideal for random program and pre-employment testing scenarios, where an employer may want a better idea of an employee or applicant’s long-term drug use patterns.

Hair testing would not be ideal in situation where recent drug use needs to be evaluated, since it takes roughly two to three weeks for the hair to grow in and show any kind of drug use. Since 100-120 strands of hair are needed to properly complete the hair testing, issues may also arise in applicants or employees who have little or no hair on their bodies or heads.

Blood

There is no better option for testing active drug use in an employee’s system than a blood screen, which can tell exactly what is currently in an individual’s system at the time of testing. Drugs and alcohol are rapidly metabolized in the body, which allows substance abuse to be detected within minutes of entering an individual’s system. The downside to this procedure, is that metabolization also quickly eliminates drugs from the body, allowing substance abuse to be test for only a few hours.

Due to the invasive nature of a blood test and the very brief detection window, blood testing is usually reserved for reasonable suspicion and post-accident screening where active drug or alcohol use is likely.

If you have questions about your current screening program, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us. A-Check Global’s team of dedicated professionals is available to help and provide friendly, accurate guidance. Give us a call today at 877-345-2021, or email support@acheckglobal.com.

Drug Urine Saliva Hair Blood
Amphetamines 24-72 hrs 24-36 hrs 1-3 months 24 hrs
Cocaine 24-72 hrs 24-36 hrs 1-3 months 1-3 days
Opiates 24-72 hrs 24-36 hrs 1-3 months 1-3 days
PCP (occasional use) 1-5 days 24-36 hrs 1-3 months 1-3 days
PCP (chronic use) up to 30 days 24-36 hrs 1-3 months 1-3 days
THC (occasional use) 1-5 days <24 hrs 1-3 months 12-24 hrs
THC (chronic use) up to 30 days <24 hrs 1-3 months 2-7 days
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