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Alcohol and Drug Screening: What It Is, Types of Tests, and Results

06 March, 2024

A medical professional giving a small container to another person

Alcohol and drug screening is a vital component in many industries. It is particularly crucial in workplaces with a high risk of accidents. The screening is the process of examining various biological specimens to detect the presence of alcohol and illicit drugs. It helps to identify individuals who are impaired while working or who may have substance abuse issues. There are various types of screening, and the most common ones are urine, saliva, and breath testing.

Being under the influence of drugs or alcohol can be dangerous. It can lead to accidents, injuries, or fatalities due to impairment. Moreover, substance abuse can lead to several physical and mental health issues. For this reason, many organisations implement drug and alcohol testing to help maintain workplace safety. The following sections will provide an overview of substance screening, different types of tests, and an understanding of the results.

What Is Alcohol and Drug Screening?

Alcohol and drug screening refers to the process of testing individuals if they have illicit drugs in their system. Various organisations carry this out, including employers, schools, primary care, and law enforcement. The purpose of this test is to ensure safety and compliance with regulations. Organisations can facilitate screening through in-house testing or by outsourcing to a third-party provider.

Drug and alcohol screens typically use immunoassay techniques to detect substances in the sample. It works through antigen-antibody reactions, where specific antibodies bind to drug metabolites present in the specimen. It produces qualitative results in a short period of time. If the test is positive, further confirmatory testing may be necessary to validate the results.

There are several reasons why employers choose to conduct drug and alcohol tests. Substance abuse in the workplace can lead to decreased productivity, increased absenteeism, accidents, and higher healthcare costs. By implementing testing programs, employers can identify and address any substance abuse issues before they become a larger problem.

Importance in Various Settings

  • Workplace: Screening for illicit substances in the workplace helps monitor impairment and prevent accidents. Employers have a duty to ensure the safety of their employees and create a healthy work environment.
  • Healthcare: Helps medical professionals know the drug use history of a patient. It is also valuable in rehabilitation programs to monitor the recovery progress of an individual.
  • Roadside: Determine if an individual is driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
  • Legal proceedings: Provide evidence of drug use in custody battles and probationary programs.
  • Schools: Deter students from using drugs and provide support for those who may be struggling with substance abuse.

Comparing the test strip to the colour chart indicator

Types of Alcohol and Drug Screening

There are several types of alcohol and drug screening that can be used in various situations. One common method is urine testing. It is relatively non-invasive and easy to administer. Also, urine samples provide a wide detection window, tracing drug usage within the past few days to weeks. Additionally, it is affordable and reliable, making it a preferred choice of many employers.

The second common screening method is saliva testing. This type involves the collection of saliva samples through a mouth swab. It can detect commonly abused substances within a 24-48 hour period after consumption. Moreover, it is non-invasive, as the collection process is quick and painless. Hence, it is suitable for on-the-spot testing or random screening.

Moreover, breath alcohol testing is a process of determining recent alcohol consumption. It utilises a breathalyser device to measure the blood alcohol level through the breath sample. Breath tests have average detection times of 12 to 24 hours, depending on the amount of alcohol intake. In addition, the breathalyser can return the results within seconds, making it efficient and convenient.

What Can Be Detected?

Drug screening can detect a wide range of substances, including illegal drugs and prescription medications. It normally tests for marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, phencyclidine (PCP), benzodiazepines, and heroin. Several prescription opiates are also detectable, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, and morphine. These substances have different periods of detection in different types of tests.

Furthermore, alcohol screening commonly detects ethanol, an active ingredient in many alcoholic beverages. Some screening tests can also identify alcohol consumption through metabolites like ethyl glucuronide (EtG) and ethyl sulphate (EtS). The presence of these alcohol biomarkers indicates consumption, even if the individual is no longer intoxicated.

A drug test report form and a stethoscope

Understanding the Results of Alcohol and Drug Screening

The results of alcohol and drug screenings can have serious implications. Thus, understanding the results of these tests is important for individuals. Mainly, the screening test results can be classified into three categories: negative, non-negative or positive, and inconclusive. A negative result indicates that illicit substances or alcohol are not present.

A non-negative result, on the other hand, indicates the detection of drugs or alcohol. It means that certain substances have reached the cut-off level to trigger the result. This may require further confirmation testing to validate the test. It is crucial to note that only laboratory-based testing can produce a positive result. Also, a non-negative result does not necessarily mean that the individual is impaired at the time of testing.

Meanwhile, an inconclusive result means that the test is unclear or cannot be interpreted definitively. This may occur due to various factors, such as improper sample collection, handling, or interference from other substances. Lastly, the results from a breathalyser test reflect the current alcohol concentration levels of a person, specifically the numerical value of the Blood Alcohol Content (BAC).

Implications of a Non-Negative Result

A non-negative result may lead to several consequences, depending on the situation or severity. In the workplace, this could lead to disciplinary action, including termination of employment. Strict penalties are in place, especially in safety-critical industries, due to the high risk of accidents. Employers have the right to enforce these measures through a comprehensive drug and alcohol testing policy.

In roadside screening, the consequences may include on-the-spot fines and license suspensions. Moreover, in healthcare settings, a non-negative result may lead to further evaluation to diagnose possible substance use disorders. Individuals with addiction may need to undergo treatment and counselling.

Conclusion

Alcohol and drug screening plays a crucial role in ensuring safety and maintaining accountability in various settings. There are types of screening methods, including urine, saliva, and breath testing. They can detect substances in the most efficient way possible, without requiring professional or laboratory procedures, using kits. These can return the results within a few seconds to minutes, showing the presence or absence of drugs or alcohol.

Understanding the process, what can be detected, and the implications of the results is essential for individuals undergoing these tests. It is important to note that a non-negative result does not automatically mean impairment but may require further validation testing in laboratories. Furthermore, the consequences of failing a test may range from disciplinary actions to legal charges. To ensure accuracy, individuals or organisations should use reliable devices, like the ToxWipe 7, that meet the standard requirements, especially in professional settings.

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