Wiping Up the Evidence

From the WebMD Archives

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."

Cloud says using an in-home drug test should be a parent's last resort. "I agree a child is entitled to a private life, and I agree a parent should not breach a child's private life unless they have good reason to." Signs of drug abuse would provide a good reason, she says. The problem is, the very nature of adolescence makes drug-use detection somewhat difficult. For example, Drug Testing Network Inc. offers the following signs that a child may be on drugs: dramatic changes in styles of clothes, hair, music, attitude, and personality. Many parents would say these are qualities that could just as easily describe a normal teen-ager.

The American Civil Liberties Union also is skeptical of products like DrugWipes because they tell, at best, half the story. "There are always two steps to a successful drug test," says Graham Boyd, director of the Drug Policy Litigation Project. "The first is a [test like DrugWipes]. ... But that test itself cannot be the basis for taking any kind of action." Boyd says a second urinary test is required for absolute confirmation.

"A good police officer knows a field test for marijuana raises strong suspicions. But before you would do anything, you would usually get that test confirmed. But a parent would probably not know the difference. The parent would probably say, 'Well, there you go ... there are drugs.'" Boyd adds, "Parents make mistakes all the time about this kind of behavior, and sometimes tragic results ensue from that."

Vital Information:

  • DrugWipes are small pieces of gauze that can test for drug use by simply wiping them over a surface the potential drug user has touched, such as a doorknob, table, or steering wheel.
  • The wipes test for cocaine, speed, and opiates, such as heroin, morphine, and codeine, and the product is shown to be highly accurate.
  • The company that makes DrugWipes is calling the method preliminary, and observers say tests like DrugWipes should be used along with other verification of drug use before action is taken.
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