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Heroin Use Higher Than Expected

By Dori Meinert  2/10/2011
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Heroin use is five times more common among U.S. workers than previously thought, according to a report from Quest Diagnostics Inc.

Analyzing the results of new drug tests using saliva, Quest researchers found heroin in 0.04 percent of 320,000 employees screened from January to June 2010. That’s 40 out of 100,000 workers, compared with eight out of 100,000 workers who tested positive for heroin using urine tests during the same period.

Saliva tests detect recent drug use. They are more difficult to tamper with than urine tests, the most commonly used testing method, according to Quest officials.

Federally Mandated Workers

New federally mandated urine testing for private transportation workers showed a 20 percent jump in positive heroin tests in the last three months of last year. The U.S. Transportation Department implemented stricter testing requirements in October. In addition to lowering the cutoffs for traces of amphetamines and cocaine found in the tests, the Transportation Department joined the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to require urine tests specifically for heroin.

In more than 350,000 urine samples tested from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31, 2010, heroin was found in 0.011 percent—or 11 out of 100,000 workers, compared with nine out of 100,000 in the last quarter of 2009, when the previous heroin-detection program was used, Quest researchers found. In the past, workers in safety-sensitive positions were tested for heroin only after a positive morphine test because heroin metabolizes to morphine.

"While the findings are preliminary, new federal requirements appear to be weeding out more heroin users from safety-sensitive roles, where impairment from heroin use can cause particularly grave impact,” says Barry Sample, director of science and technology for Quest Diagnostics Employer Solutions in Madison, N.J.

While the prevalence is still low, heroin “can have a significant impact on people’s performance, particularly when you’re talking about safety-sensitive duties,” Sample says.

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