article about a New Castle, PA couple that had their new-born child taken away because the woman failed an in-hospital drug test for opiates. (A Pennsylvania state law allows the hospital to drug test the maternal blood for the purpose of "protecting children.")
The woman's infant was taken away for five days.
The woman, however, was not a drug user. Not at all.
Her real crime? Eating rolls with poppy seeds.
That's right, eating food you buy at the local grocery store can cause you to have your child taken away. A Pennsylvania House Bill, 2760, that passed three years earlier allows hospitals to test a mother's blood to protect newborns - unfortunately no one bothered to consider that food might cause a false positive.
So I started to wonder about this. I had heard lots of "urban legend" type stuff about things like this. So I did a little research.
First off, in the case of poppy seeds its not the poppy seed itself that causes the problem. This is kind of interesting. The "opium poppy' is Papaver Somniferum and the seeds themselves contain no alkaloids (what opium and heroin are made of). So it makes sense that the seeds are used commercially for poppy seed bagels and other poppy seed treats like cakes.
The problem is that in processing the seeds the sap of the plant, which does contain the alkaloids, can end up on or coating the seeds - which is what can cause the false positive. Apparently in this case that's what happened. The levels of opioid tests that trigger positive have increased in the last 12 years or so but even still there can be problems as seen with this case.
So what about other types of false positives? I tracked down this website: PassYourDrugTest.com. There is a page there with a lot of information.
It turns out that each type of test, THC, opioids, etc., has long list of problematic, every day substances which can make you an instant criminal. The lists are quite long and I am only going to summarize the results here:
The worst offenders for Amphetamines and Ecstacy tests are things like Nyquil, various decongestants like Dimetapp, Contact, and Allerest.
For THC Advil, Nupren, and Motrin can cause false positives.
For opiate tests, our friend the poppy seed, along with any prescription pain killer, Dextromethorphan, or Nyquil.
For cocaine tests, watch out for Amoxicilin and tonic water.
There is also an extensive set of diseases that can cause false positive tests as well - primarily those of the kidney's and liver.
Okay, so let's say this can happen. How often does it happen?
It turns out there are two perspectives. That of the those providing the test and that of those falsely accused. From the link:
"Statistics vary widely on the likelihood of false positives, depending on the test and the lab. Civil libertarians say 5 percent is a conservative estimate. Medical experts acknowledge that false positives aren’t impossible. But they say urinalysis, the most common means of drug testing, has improved. The Iowa Methodist Medical Center laboratory’s testing is more than 99 percent reliable..."
So there's a margin of at least 4%.
But what does this mean? Well, let's say there's a police check point on the way home from the bar.
If your drunk you're probably in trouble. But potentially for more than just a DUI. What's the chance you consumed at least one of the substances that can cause a false positive that I listed above?
In researching this I also came upon something else. DUI checkpoints, for the most part, are not for DUIs. They are to catch other offenses - bench warrants, outstanding citations, and so forth. The ratio is about 11 non-DUI arrests for each DUI arrest.
In Pennsylvania in 2009 there were about 17,000 DUI arrests made by state troopers. While alcohol fatalities decreased from 161 the year before to 141, the number of drug related arrests at the point of the DUI stop went from 693 to 1,118.
The good news is that all of this says that your likelihood of getting a false positive drug arrest for something like a police checkpoint is probably pretty low: say 1 in 17 from the above statistics with, say, a 5% chance of a false positive on top of that, so maybe 50 people would become potential victims of a false positive test.
I see trouble, though, if all hospitals start checking everyone's blood. This will vastly increase the total number of tests, driving up the false positive percentage rate.
I guess all this gives us one less reason to go to the doctor.
Though I do have one, funny, anecdotal story... I guy I knew was on dialysis and did a lot of drugs - pretty much whatever he could get has hands on as well as alcohol. One night he hit a check point on the way home - and they took his blood.
A few weeks later he got his summons and headed down to the court house for what he thought would be a lot of trouble. When he got there they sent him home - no charges.
All we can figure was that his blood chemistry was so messed up no prosecutor in his right mind was going to even try and explain the test results to a judge.