By Mike Grosh and Steve Barber
Why test for alcohol?
There are several reasons you may want to test for the presence of alcohol. Perhaps you’re an employer and suspect an employee to be intoxicated on the job. Or, maybe you’re a jurist, working with an individual convicted of DUI. Possibly, you’re a caseworker who needs to be assured a birth parent is substance-free. All of these are possibilities, yet each situation is different and each calls for different testing methods.
Use vs. Intoxication
Before you can decide which method to use when testing for alcohol, you first need to answer this question. Are you attempting to prove or disprove intoxication, or instead are you simply looking to determine use? It’s an important distinction, because different types of tests are used for different reasons.
Let’s take a look at the first example, above. Perhaps the employer has a corporate policy against drinking on the job. Shouldn’t a simple urine alcohol test be able to prove that? The answer is emphatically, “no.” A positive urine screen would only show that the donor had used alcohol sometime within the past six to twenty-four hours. Assuming the employee was not on duty for twenty-four hours, it is certainly possible that he or she had ingested alcohol off duty, which is perfectly legal. And because a positive urine alcohol test only proves use, not intoxication, it is no indicator that the employee in this example has broken corporate policy. If you choose the wrong testing method, you might be opening yourself up for legal action.
So, what should the employer do in this situation? In our opinion, the best choice of action is to have the employee submit to a breathalyzer. A positive breathalyzer test would prove intoxication. Intoxication easily proves use while on the job.
But what if the individual is prohibited from using any and all substances, like the individual in example 3 above? Would a breathalyzer be the best choice in that situation? Absolutely not. Our recommendation would be for urine alcohol screening on a random basis, over time. The main reasons we recommend urine alcohol over breathalyzer screening in this case are 1.) the detection window is far longer in urine screening, and 2.) there is no need to prove intoxication, only ingestion.
Let’s take a closer look at the three most common forms of alcohol testing and see what they have to offer:
- Blood alcohol–Excellent indicator of intoxication, with short detection window–typically hours, depending on the amount of alcohol ingested and the individual’s metabolism.
- Breath– Excellent indicator of intoxication, with short detection window–typically hours, depending on the amount of alcohol ingested and the individual’s metabolism. More convenient to use than blood alcohol.
- Urine–Best indicator of use, due to its longer detection window (6 to 24 hours). Poor choice when attempting to show intoxication.
There is yet another testing choice now available to you–Ethylglucuronide testing (EtG). This particular type of screen uses urine, but processes it differently, resulting in a vastly expanded detection window of up to 72 hours. When considering EtG testing, it is important for you to realize that when detection levels are set low by the laboratory, incidental exposure to certain household products (hand sanitizers, mouthwash, etc.) may result in a positive result. That’s why we recommend using only laboratories that set a higher threshold–2000 mg/ml for the initial screen and 500 mg/ml for GC/MS confirmation. When used properly, EtG testing can be a valuable addition to your alcohol screening arsenal.
But whatever your situation, you should always be able and willing to discuss your specific needs with your provider to determine the most appropriate method of testing.
© copyright 2008 Span Corporation
Mike Grosh is President, and Steve Barber is Director of Testing Service for Span Corporation, a national provider of drug screen and background investigation Third Party Administration services. Span Corporation headquarters are located at 1505 White St Ann Arbor MI 48103. Mike, Steve and Span Corporation can be reached at 734-623-7726 or SpanAdvantage@spancorp.com. Website URL: http://www.spancorp.com
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