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What is a Drug and Alcohol Test?

13 March, 2023

 

A drug test form and a sample cup for urine

A drug and alcohol test is the process of collecting and examining biological specimens, including blood, urine, saliva, and breath. The aim of the test is to detect the presence of illegal drugs, misuse of prescription medicines, and alcohol. Drugs and alcohol are substances that affect the normal functions of the brain and body. They can alter perception and impair reasoning. Hence, excessive consumption or abuse poses significant health and safety risks.

The negative impact of drug and alcohol use is widespread across many industries. Substance impairment is one of the primary factors in the workplace and roadside accidents. Therefore, there is an increasing need to conduct testing, especially in public areas. This article will discuss the purpose and methods of drug and alcohol testing, substances detected, and factors affecting the test. We will also tackle the various effects of drugs and alcohol on the body.

The Purpose of Drug and Alcohol Testing

A drug and alcohol test is one of the preventive measures to minimise safety hazards. It involves analysing the specimen for the detection of drugs and abuse. In healthcare, it is essential to determine if a person has ingested substances leading to harm or addiction. Additionally, law enforcement conducts roadside testing to check if a driver is impaired. Drugs and drink-driving pose a serious road safety issue. Hence, routine inspection helps determine compromised drivers who may cause traffic accidents.

Another critical setting for risk prevention is the workplace. Employees coming to work with drugs and alcohol content in their system increase the risk of accidents. It causes employees to perform poorly because of flawed reasoning, coordination, and irrational behaviours. Moreover, drug and alcohol use or abuse in the workplace results in high absenteeism, turnover rates, and strained relationships. Therefore, high-risk industries mandate periodic tests through a policy to monitor substance use.

Safety-sensitive workplaces like mining, construction, transportation, and manufacturing implement zero-tolerance for drugs and alcohol. It means that employees must not be even slightly impaired during working hours. Furthermore, companies implement drug and alcohol testing to determine substance use or impairment among workers. Various methods can detect drugs and alcohol, including urine, blood, saliva, and breath samples. Each procedure has different means of examining drug and alcohol concentration.

Test Methods

  • Urine – detects various drugs and their byproducts for up to 48 hours of last use.
  • Oral fluid – traces recent substance use within 5 to 24 hours.
  • Blood – can indicate chronic versus single use. Detects substances within minutes.
  • Hair – traces drug and alcohol metabolites within 7 to 90 days.
  • Breath – detects alcohol use within minutes.

Urine test kit for THC drug screening

What is Detected in Drug and Alcohol Tests?

Different specimens can detect drug and alcohol content in various ways. Drug and alcohol tests can check for many compounds within a drug class and are often categorised based on the chemical structure of effect. For example, roadside and workplace testing screens for most abused substances like depressants, stimulants, and hallucinogens. Depressants include alcohol, benzodiazepines, opioids and barbiturates. They are highly addictive because of their relaxation and euphoric effects.

Stimulants, on the other hand, speed up the functions of the central nervous system. They can result in wakefulness and increased energy and pleasure. In short, they provide a sense of rush. However, high levels can increase the heart rate and blood pressure causing nausea, seizures, coma, and loss of life. Examples of stimulants are caffeine, cocaine, amphetamines, ecstasy and nicotine. Moreover, combining stimulants with other drugs can be hazardous.

Furthermore, hallucinogens are drugs that alter a person’s perception of reality. It is also called a “psychedelic” drug because it creates auditory and visual hallucinations. Examples of hallucinogens are LSD, phencyclidine (PCP), and cannabis. Lastly, a drug and alcohol test can also determine the misuse of prescribed medications. Misuse or taking prescribed drugs other than for medical purposes can show up in a drug test due to abnormal levels or high concentrations.

Types of Tests

  • Immunoassay test – uses antibodies to bind to detect drugs and metabolites based on a predetermined cut-off. It is utilised in rapid test kits.
  • GC/MS test – provides more analytical specificity in laboratory analysis. Confirmation testing often uses GC/MS to confirm the final result.
  • ELISA – has higher sensitivity and is often used in forensic testing.

Drug test results with pills

Factors that can Affect a Drug and Alcohol Test

Institutions implementing drug and alcohol tests observe strict procedures to ensure reliable results. It requires standard procedures for accurate analysis. However, certain factors can affect the test results, including the cut-off limit, detection window, and drug dose or concentration. For instance, a cut-off limit is the minimum amount of a substance that can be interpreted as a positive result. Additionally, the detection period depends on how far the procedure can trace drugs from the date of the test.

The most common method for drug testing is urine because it can detect high concentrations of drugs and their metabolites. Most workplaces also use urine analysis because it can give rapid results. However, urine samples are prone to tampering which can render false negatives. For example, adulterating urine with other fluids can interrupt or mask the result. Likewise, a false positive may happen due to exposure to alcohol, medical conditions, and interactions with medicines.

To avoid false positives in a drug and alcohol test, individuals must inform the administrator if they take OTC or prescribed medicines. In the case of a positive in an initial screening, a confirmation test is necessary to validate the results. For instance, they may forward the samples to a laboratory for further analysis, or the subject may take another test. Laboratory tests use more comprehensive examinations and review to get accurate results.

What are Test Standards

Workplaces and hospitals use test procedures and equipment that adhere to international standards for reliable test results. It includes sample collection, handling, storage, analysis, and disposal.

  • AS/NZ 4308 – urine testing for detection and quantification of drugs
  • AS/NZ 4760 – oral fluid testing for detection and quantification of drugs
  • AS/NZ 3547 – alcohol testing through a breathalyser

Conclusion

Drug and alcohol tests play a vital role in roadside and workplace health and safety. These tests detect commonly abused substances such as cocaine, amphetamines, cannabis, opiates, and alcohol. In addition, employers or individuals may utilise various procedures of testing. The standard methods are urine, oral fluid, saliva, and breath. Each test type has varying detection windows and cut-off levels. Therefore, institutions may use several procedures and strategies to determine substance use or impairment.

In conclusion, the effects of illicit substances and alcohol intoxication are detrimental to personal health and public safety. Employers facilitate frequent workplace testing to help minimise the hazards of drug and alcohol use. They may perform the test in several circumstances, such as pre-employment, post-incident, and reasonable suspicion. Fortunately, there are cost-efficient methods and devices to help monitor drugs and alcohol. These are rapid drug test kits and portable breathalysers that enable self-testing.

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