July 28, 2008 -- Vinegar. Lemon juice. Drain-cleaning products. At least one of these items is probably in your kitchen. And any of them can be used to beat a drug test.
For about 20 years, people have been using a long list of very ordinary household items to confuse prospective employers and drug labs hoping to catch them in the act of using or abusing illegal drugs.
Add to the list laundry detergent, baking soda, and ordinary salt.
"Does it work? Yes, it does," says Amitava Dasgupta, PhD, a professor of pathology and drug testing expert from the University of Texas-Houston Medical Center. "It's a cat and mouse game."
Employer drug testing became popular in the late 1980s after President Ronald Reagan instituted drug testing as a requirement for federal jobs. Lots of private companies followed suit, and today thousands run drug tests on people applying for jobs.
Many schools also conduct drug tests on students trying to join sports teams, or, more controversially, sometimes conduct tests on a random basis.
Many household items change urine's pH, or acidity, when they're added to it; most of the time that renders a sample useless for testing. But these are not the cheating methods that worry testers like Dasgupta.
That's because labs can easily tell when urine has been adulterated with household items. Usually they just disqualify the applicant without even bothering to test for specific drugs.
Online Test-Cheating Industry
That's what happens with most of the so-called "detoxifying" drinks that can be found online. Most of the drinks are simply loaded with caffeine and come with directions to drink lots and lots of water. That dilutes the urine, which can sully a drug test.
But testers are prepared for dilution, Dasgupta says. Any sample below a certain concentration is automatically rejected, regardless of whether it has evidence of illegal drugs in it.
"There is no magic formulation which can take drugs out of your body," Dasgupta says.
Chris Faught, who heads chemical testing at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, says his lab routinely sees dilution as a strategy to fool drug tests in the emergency room. "We get results that are simply suppressed so there's obviously an interfering substance. The old classic way is to drink lots and lots of water," he tells WebMD.
But the gigantic test-cheating industry, found mostly online, has given toxicologists like Dasgupta new problems to contend with. One popular formulation is called pyridinium chlorochromate (PCC). It destroys drug molecules in urine, potentially fooling drug tests.
But there's a catch: the simple addition of some hydrogen peroxide will turn a PCC-containing urine sample dark brown.
Testing for Marijuana Use
"The bottom line is toxicologists are smarter than drug abusers," Dasgupta told reporters at a meeting of the American Association for Clinical Chemistry in Washington. "If try to cheat on a drug test, we will catch you."
That's usually true. But even Dasgupta concedes there are some holes in his drug-testing net. He says parents should be on the lookout for over-the-counter eyedrops. A full vial of the easy-to-buy product can successfully mask THC -- marijuana's active ingredient -- if it's added to a urine sample.
This cheating method doesn't work for heavy marijuana users. But for "borderline" tests, some eyedrops can envelop THC molecules, effectively hiding them from chemical detection, adds Dasgupta.