The problem(s) with hair testing

March 16, 2021

John Bendel

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Big Trucking wants hair to replace urine for mandatory drug testing, and they don’t want to confirm a positive hair test with a urine test. When Big Trucking believes they’ve caught you, they want you to stay caught. A positive hair test proves you’re bad. You’ve been indicted, tried, and convicted. You’re not fit for a driver’s seat. No appeal. No second opinion.

Some carriers use hair testing now along with the required urine tests, and sure enough, hair tests eliminate more applicants than the urine tests. But that’s not good enough for Big Trucking. Because they use it, everyone should. They want hair testing to be mandatory, and they don’t want to be bothered with confirmation by a second, different test. It won’t make any difference, they say. Presumably, a positive hair test always trumps a negative urine test. Period.

True, urine testing can only catch substances you have used in the last day or two (or up to a month in some cases like with chronic marijuana use).

Hair testing can reveal use going back three months or more – some say years, though that would mean really long hair.

The Big Trucking assumption is that if you ever smoked weed or tried cocaine with friends, you lead an immoral, licentious lifestyle that precludes a job behind the wheel – at least until you grow enough hair to leave your evil past behind you.

Of course, you can stay clean for three months then pig out on drugs the night before a hair test and still pass. Hair takes time to grow. While a urine test would miss the three month’s abstinence, it will catch the previous night’s debauchery.

OK, with the exception of what you did last night, what’s wrong with hair testing? One problem involves the composition of the hair itself. People with darker hair, particularly African Americans, are more likely to test positive – as much as four times more likely.

There is also a debate over airborne drug traces being absorbed by hair. That would mean you can have the stuff in your hair even in you never took a toke or a sniff.

David Kidwell, a scientist at the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C., told WGBH public TV in Boston that residue from drugs can be anywhere.

“You can be exposed to drugs, you can get it on the surface of your hair, (it) will bind to the hair and … make you look like a long-time drug user when it’s just mere contact with the drug,” he explained. Kidwell told WGBH that if you move into an apartment where drugs had been used, for example, you might be exposed.

Hair testing companies – who have a clear financial interest in the reputation of their tests – counter that they have developed ways around that problem.

They claim they can tell the difference between ingested drug traces and those absorbed from the environment. In defiance of all human experience, these companies are never wrong, you see.

So, you have this debate and others about the accuracy of hair testing. You also have many people who tested positive yet say they never even tried the drugs in question, often with negative urine and other tests to back up their claims. They’re not all liars. The volume of such claims plus the ongoing debates make it clear hair tests are not as reliable as their proponents say.

And despite what they claim, it is possible to beat a hair test. People say they have done it – again in such numbers that their stories could not all be bogus. Nevertheless, Big Trucking wants to mandate hair testing without confirmation of positive results by other testing methods.

So, why do big carriers who argue against government-mandated anything else want the hair testing they use voluntarily to be mandatory for everyone?

Because they’re blown away by its incredible safety benefits? Or do they want smaller, more nimble carriers – their competitors – to incur higher costs and to wash out as many potential drivers with hair testing as they do?

I’m certain the ATA and Big Trucking execs have convinced themselves their cause is righteous and in the public interest. I’m sure they can look at you over a dry martini at a cocktail party and tell you so with the greatest sincerity. They’re not lying. They believe it.

But it isn’t really why. They didn’t wake up one morning with an overwhelming urge to help humanity and save lives. If they had, they would have done something truly effective, like pay drivers – well – for vehicle inspections, among other safety-related things. They’d be thinking hard about the mileage-only pay model, too.

No, Big Trucking woke up one morning thinking, “Hey, we wash out more potential drivers than a lot of other carriers. They should do it our way. In fact, they should be required to do it our way.”

Universal safety and sincerity came later. LL

J.J. Keller
John Bendel

John Bendel is Land Line’s contributing editor-at-large. A former trucker, former editor at National Lampoon and two trucking magazines, John is an author, photographer, and freelancer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, and many U.S. newspapers.