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Drug testing using saliva urged

Register Staff Writer

Saliva and hair samples would become valid materials for workplace drug testing in Iowa under a rule being considered by the Iowa Department of Public Health and pushed by some lawmakers.

Supporters - including both businesses and labor unions - say saliva tests are less intrusive, take less time and are less susceptible to tampering than tests done with urine or blood.

The change could spur more Iowa companies to test their workers for drugs because a saliva test can be done for about one-third the price of a urine test, according to some businesses.

"The less expensive and more palatable testing would be, the more agreeable both sides - the management and those who are going to be tested - will be in deciding to implement drug testing," said Phil Rasch of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry.

A 1998 state law authorized random drug testing of Iowa workers for alcohol and other drugs. However, a rule by the Department of Public Health limited testing to breath, urine and blood samples.

"When the rules were written, the rules narrowed our legislation," said Sen. Neal Schuerer, an Amana Republican. "Bureaucracy was usurping the authority of the Legislature. There should be no question about a saliva test."

Iowa is one of only six states that currently do not allow the use of saliva for drug testing, even though the federal Food and Drug Administration approved saliva testing in 1998.

Lawmakers on the Administrative Rules Review Committee on Tuesday asked for the adoption of an emergency rule to allow for the testing of saliva and hair. They said they hope the rule will be adopted by September.

"This would certainly prove to the benefit of an employee, simply because of the intrusive nature of the lab test now," said Sen. Paul McKinley, a Chariton Republican.

Dean Austin, chief of the state's Bureau of Substance Abuse Licensure and Support Services, said in the past, testing a person's saliva hasn't been as accurate for detecting the use of marijuana.

However, new technology has made saliva testing just as reliable, said Ken Kunsman, director of marketing and substance abuse testing for OraSure Technologies Inc. of Pennsylvania.

Kunsman said saliva is considered more of a "real-time test" because it shows the presence of drugs in a person within 20 minutes of use, and up to 48 hours afterward. Urine takes longer to show the presence of drugs - eight to 16 hours - but lasts for up to 72 hours.

"We believe that would be more accurate to actually tell whether a person's using on the job, rather than just a recreational user," said Al Skinner, a policy committee member of the United Steelworkers of America Local 310, which has pushed for the change.

Kinze Manufacturing in Williamsburg, which employs 500 people and manufactures farm equipment, also is in favor of the change. The company has explored using hair samples to test its workers.

"Anything we can do to make testing easier, more practical, more cost-effective - we're open to those kinds of discussions," said Ned Miller, the company's human resources manager.

But the Iowa Federation of Labor, which opposed workplace drug testing when it became law in 1998, said drug tests are simply not credible for measuring a worker's level of impairment.

"If people are impaired, we ought to get them off the job," said IFL President Mark Smith. "We go wild about someone who smoked one marijuana cigarette three weeks ago. If I'm a parent and was up all night long with a sick kid, I am probably impaired, but I can pass the drug test with flying colors."