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January 20, 2005 - The Chicago Sun-Times (IL)

Hair Tests For Drug Use Need A Closer Look

By Mary Mitchell

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Black women are used to bad hair days. But Lilnora Foster's bad hair day cost her an apartment in the newly renovated building at CHA's Hilliard complex, a mixed-income development on the South Side, when the public-housing resident tested positive for drug use.

"They told me my drug test was positive. I don't do drugs," Foster said emphatically. "I do not do illegal drugs. Somebody did something wrong."

Foster, who receives a disability check, volunteers regularly at her 8-year-old daughter's school, and is a full-time college student majoring in social work, did not let the matter drop.

After receiving a positive result from a hair test at Concentra drug testing laboratory on the South Side, she went to the lab's North Side site for another test. When that test also came back positive, Foster went to her doctor at Mercy Hospital and got a blood test for a toxicology screen for 22 different drugs, including cocaine.

That drug screening was negative.

Secondhand Effect

When Foster gave those results to representatives of Holsten Management Corp., the management arm of the developer of the Hilliard project, she was told there was nothing they could do since the building was fully leased.

"I was devastated," she said.

Foster couldn't think of any reason for the positive drug test except one. She lives on the top floor of public housing and the place is "filled with people smoking that stuff," she said.

She talked to her physician about hair testing and researched the topic on the Internet.

"I asked him about all the drug addicts in my building, and he told me that crack cocaine crystallizes and can become airborne and floats around in the air," Foster said. "I knew there had to be an explanation for the false positive tests."

As far-fetched as Foster's explanation may sound, she's on to something.

According to Warren Cooper, owner of Acculab Drug Testing, a person can be in an area where someone else is smoking drugs and that person's hair test may be interpreted as positive.

"She could have walked into a room where somebody had smoked a joint and there would be secondhand smoke. Now if the American Cancer Society is saying that secondhand smoke can get into the body, it can certainly get in the inner part of the hair," Cooper said.

May Be Ethnically Biased

And there is still so much controversy surrounding hair testing accuracy because of the possibility of contamination from surroundings, the test is not yet recognized as a legitimate drug test by the federal Transportation Department or the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

There is also concern that hair-follicle testing may be ethnically biased since people with dark, coarse hair are more likely to test positive for illegal substances such as cocaine, according to health experts.

Although the management group screening tenants who want to move into the mixed-income property is using hair testing to bar drug users, Healthwise, an online health guide, reports that hair analysis is less commonly used to test for illegal drug use, such as cocaine or marijuana.

A false positive test result can occur in a person who inhaled the "secondhand smoke of a person who smoked marijuana or crack cocaine," health experts concluded.

In fact, health experts, including two medical doctors and an expert in pulmonology, critical care and medical toxicology, concluded that hair testing can be affected by race as well as external environmental factors, such as where you live and work.

"That is a problem," Cooper said. "I don't know why people are doing hair testing."

Matthew Roddy, executive vice president of Holsten Management Corp, agrees that the issue needs to be addressed "more carefully."

Not a Total Loss

"It is something we will be talking to the lab about," he said. "I will also say that of the families that have moved into that building, none of them tested positive on a hair test for illegal drugs. So if there are false positive tests, it doesn't reflect a large percentage of the families."

Thankfully, Terry Peterson, CEO of the Chicago Housing Authority, isn't as ready to dismiss Foster's complaint.

"Here was a person who was pretty persistent that she was not on drugs," Peterson said. "She is a working mom who is fighting to get into a newly rehabbed unit. I'd pay for a new drug test out of my own pocket."

Although Foster will be unable to move into the apartment she had her heart set on, Peterson said he has been assured that she is at the top of the list to get an apartment in Phase Two of the project.

Still, she is seething over the indignity of being denied housing because of the false report.

"I had to go to my 8-year-old daughter and tell her why we didn't get the apartment," she said. "And they insulted my intelligence. I'm sure I'm not the first person who disputed this test."

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