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September 2019
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Hair Tests

Long term substance misuse, ie drugs and alcohol, is not a new problem in the UK, but it is an escalating one. The National Addiction Centre recently claimed that more than three million British children now live in households where at least one of the parents is a binge drinker and one million are living with at least one parent who abuses drugs.

Many end up in care, with others either living with one parent or with extended family. Young people in care are amongst the most vulnerable in society consistently achieving less then their peers: 10% more likely to be excluded from school, 36% will not be entered into GCSEs, 20% will be homeless and 35% of girls will have early pregnancies.

The main reason why substance abuse is so hard to tackle is the reluctance of people to admit it in the first place and the lengths they will go to in concealing their habits. Accurate historical detection is another obstacle. It has long been acknowledged by the medical profession that a reliable test to detect alcohol and drug consumption is required. A number of traditional tests exist (eg blood, liver function test) but each one has severe limitations – eg even when accurate, they only relate to recent consumption.

Although relatively new, forensic toxicology testing of hair is fast-becoming the preferred method of determining whether someone’s alcohol or drug consumption is preventing them from doing their job or caring for a child. Samples can be collected non-invasively and will provide an accurate record of any alcohol or drugs dependency over a three to 12 month period. Since hair growth is fed by the bloodstream, the ingestion of drugs or excess alcohol in the blood is revealed by analysing chemical markers absorbed by the hair. As the hair grows, it absorbs these markers into its structure, which remain in the hair indefinitely. These markers are only produced when there is alcohol or drugs in the bloodstream. The more markers there are, the more has been consumed. A tuft of hair about the diameter of a pencil is required and the industry standard is to test a length of 1.5 inches, which provides a 90 day history. If no head hair is available, body hair can be used instead. Samples must be taken by a trained collector or by a national nursing service to collect samples on behalf of clients. Results are generally available in seven to 10 working days from receipt of the sample and can be provided in a standard legal statement. This is accepted, if required, by all UK courts – although in some cases it may be necessary to also provide ‘expert witness evidence’ to support the results.

The vast majority of circumstances in which people are required to undergo Hair Alcohol or Drug Tests in the UK are when Local Authorities are gathering evidence for child custody cases or family lawyers in divorce proceedings. However requests are also made by doctors for assessing a patient’s suitability for transplant surgery, by corporate lawyers in employment tribunals and routine screening for safety critical jobs such as airline pilots. We also test samples from around the world: for banned drink-drivers to be allowed back their licenses (Germany) and to confirm cases of suspected Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (Canada), where mothers have drunk excessively during pregnancy.

Whilst no official figures are available, we estimate the annual number of tests carried out in the UK to have risen to around 5,000 since the technology was first introduced and accepted as evidence in court proceedings in 2006. The number of people in the UK failing compulsory Hair Alcohol Tests, for example, has risen from 43% in 2008 to over half – 51% – in 2009. Those failing the test exceeded a consumption of 60g, or 7.5 units, of alcohol per day. This equates to eight small glasses of wine or four pints of average strength beer – double the Government’s recommended threshold for safe drinking and the point at which someone is considered to be alcohol-dependent (World Health Organisation). Men are more likely to fail the test than women with 54% of male hair samples exceeding the cut-off limit, versus 46% of women.

Case Study

Merseyside law firm, Burd Ward Solicitors, has used hair alcohol tests in a successful bid to reunite children with their parents. In early January, hair samples were collected from both parents who had admitted excessive use of alcohol. Both adults reported abstinence in the four day period prior to hair samples being collected, but it was too short a timeframe for the hair alcohol test to yield a negative result. Further testing one month later did however give a negative result, showing that the donors had significantly reduced their alcohol intake. A third and final hair alcohol test carried out one month after that yielded a negative result of less than 4ng/mg, which is typical of teetotalers. This clearly showed that the parents had abstained from drinking in the three month period covered by all three tests.

Established in London in 2005, Trimega Laboratories is certified for the provision of clinical testing services for substances of abuse. Its services are used in the UK by Family Law specialists, social services, regulatory bodies, professions such as nurses and pilots, as well as being ordered by the Courts directly. Other services offered by Trimega Laboratories include: Roadside Drugalyzer Testing for law enforcement, Hair Steroid Testing for athletes, and most recently, Hair Benzodiazepines Testing.

0845 388 0124

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