Originally created 03/28/04

Urine tests keep cheats hopping



PHILADELPHIA - Put 30 drug-testing workers in a room together for a few hours and it isn't long before they start trading strange - and somewhat indelicate - tales of urine collection.

Stories of specimens doctored to the most vivid hues of blue, green and purple, and others spiked with bleach or diluted with chewing tobacco. Talk of false penises, and of synthetic urine formulated in separate his and hers versions. Accounts of mystery concoctions ingested or added to try to ensure that urine does not betray the drug use of its provider.

"It's just amazing," says Sherri Vogler, who runs a Houston specimen collection company and led the discussion recently at a training session for testing workers held at a Philadelphia hotel. "Beating a drug test has become a major industry."

Drug screening is a rite of passage for millions of U.S. workers, with more than 40 million tests conducted each year by employers and others. The vast majority are done by collecting a urine sample, which people in the testing business refer to, mostly straight-faced, as their "gold standard."

The "positive" rates are low - less than 5 percent - suggesting that most people aren't using drugs, let alone trying to cheat.

But the prevalence of screening and the reach of the Internet has fostered a thriving cottage industry of entrepreneurs who promise to help workers beat the tests.

The federal government hopes to crack down on cheating by broadening testing of its own employees over the next year to include scrutiny of workers' saliva, hair and sweat. Some private employers have already adopted the alternative testing methods, and new government standards could lead even more companies to make the switch.

"You want to create a new mechanism for cheating on drug tests, we're going to create a mechanism to catch it," said Robert Stephenson II, an official at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which sets standards for testing federal workers.

Tests using so-called alternative matrices already are fueling a new round of cat-and-mouse, as companies who specialize in test-beating scramble to market products they claim will foil hair and saliva screening.

"The government can go ahead and try to catch up and they will eventually, but they're going to have to do that through legislation. They're not going to do it through science," said Tony Wilson, a spokesman for Spectrum Labs, a Cincinnati company that markets an ever-changing lineup of products designed to beat drug tests.

Spectrum got its start in 1992 with a product called Urine Luck, a urine additive whose formula the company keeps changing in a bid to stay one step ahead of the testing labs bent on deciphering and detecting it.

"I think there's version 7.3 out there right now. It's like software," Ted Shults, the chairman of the American Association of Medical Review Officers, says with grudging admiration.

As new types of tests have gained acceptance in the past few years, Spectrum also has begun looking beyond urine. The company now sells 9 different products, including Get Clean Shampoo intended to counteract hair tests and Quick Fizz tablets for saliva tests.

"It's not about defrauding anybody," Mr. Wilson said of his company's products. "It's about pro- tecting privacy, because people have no privacy anymore."