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Wiping Up the Evidence

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June 26, 2000 -- It's a product description to make a civil rights activist shudder. The company Impact Health is offering what it calls the first "noninvasive" home drug test: a small piece of gauze known as a DrugWipe. While other home drug tests require the rather odious task of collecting urine, DrugWipes allows the tester to simply wipe objects a drug user might have touched -- the telephone, a doorknob, a table, or steering wheel -- to come up with drug residues.

An official for the company that manufactures the wipes, SecureTec, tells WebMD it's a safe, effective, and nearly foolproof way to detect recent drug use. "The Office of National Drug Policy put the kit through hundreds of tests. As we understand, we were the only kit to come up with 100% true positives and 0% false negatives." What's more, the official says, it allows for very precise cutoff levels so that innocent people aren't nabbed. For example, a certain amount of drug residue is required before finger-pointing.

Government tests obtained from SecureTec seem to support the official's claims, with DrugWipes failing to pick up small residues of cocaine and heroin from luggage, but scoring perfectly at higher amounts -- which were, of course, still exceedingly small. Four different types of drugs can be detected by separate DrugWipes: cocaine, amphetamines or "speed," marijuana, and opiates -- which include heroin, morphine, and codeine.

Despite their apparent accuracy, Impact Health is marketing DrugWipes as only a preliminary means to test for drugs. "It is entirely for a positive intervention," says Jean Marie Marchetto, director of marketing (In fact, they're sold at a web site named "It's an indication for you that there is a presence of drugs in the home or car, and as a parent, you would want to talk with your child about it." Marchetto says a positive DrugWipe test is not necessarily an indication someone is using drugs -- but could, for example, indicate they're hanging around with users.

Sunny Cloud is a big fan of drug testing, but doesn't trust the notion of "drug wipes." Six years ago, she founded Parent's Alert in Atlanta, a urinary drug testing service, after discovering her then-15-year-old-son was smoking pot. "There have been so many scientific studies about the unreliability of these tests. The American public is being marked for bogus testing." Cloud adds, "Over 85% of our [money has drug residue] on it. It's very simple for the test to come up positive when you're totally and completely not a drug user."

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