SALIVA VERSUS URINE: An overview of drug testing technologies


Drug abuse is a growing problem in South Africa, as the variety of drugs available continue to increase and the cost of purchasing these drugs decrease. In fact, certain drugs are now cheaper than alcohol, which has led to a significant uptake in the number of users. The dangers and liabilities of employees under the influence of intoxicating drugs can be far-reaching, and as such, mandatory drug testing is an option that more and more organisations across industry sectors are investigating.

However, the decision of whether to implement saliva or urine testing can be a challenge. Each technology has its own pros and cons, which must be weighed against the industry an organisation operates in and its environment, in order to ensure the best solution is implemented.

Drug testing has traditionally been regarded as a challenge to implement from a legal perspective. It was also regarded as slow, expensive, an invasion of privacy, and a host of other perceived obstacles that have limited its use.  However, given the growing problem of drug abuse in South Africa and the dire consequences on safety, performance and efficiency, drug testing has never been more important.

Improvements in available technology have made drug testing easier and more affordable than ever, and this can assist organisations to save lives as well as improve productivity and their bottom line.

When it comes to selecting equipment, there are a number of different solutions available, divided into two main categories of urine testing and saliva testing.  In addition to urine and saliva testing, test kits are also available that enable the testing of solid substances, such as powders or tablets, for the presence of drugs.

Urine testing solutions are generally low cost per test and are highly portable, which makes them a cost-effective option for the majority of industries. They are also available in several different form factors depending on budget and requirements.

Dip tests, as the name suggests, are strips that are dipped into a urine sample and will display either one or two red lines indicating the presence of drugs, similar to a pregnancy test. They are available as single and multi-panel, which means that they can be used to test for a single specific drug or a range of commonly abused drugs.

Another form factor is the cassette test, which is a multi-drug test that requires the operator to use a pipette to drop a urine sample into each window for testing. Integrated cup tests are also available, which incorporate the test panel into the sample cup. The cup tests are extremely popular as they have additions such as thermometer strips built in to check the urine is at body temperature. Small additions like this are very useful as they are discouraging to people who are trying to cheat the tests. Both of these tests will also use red lines to indicate the presence of commonly abused drugs in the sample.

However, urine testing is not suitable for all applications, as certain considerations must be taken into account. Due to the need for privacy, females must be tested by females, and males by males. There must also be a private bathroom available to obtain the urine sample. This is not always possible, however, particularly in industries such as construction where bathroom facilities are typically provided for by portable toilets. For applications where urine testing is not possible, saliva testing provides a convenient option.

Saliva testing uses a swab to produce results in a matter of minutes, and can be used to screen for a panel of five common illegal substances including heroine (Nyaope), cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamines, which include substances such as tik, ecstasy and khat. There are no privacy concerns with such testing, and a male or female tester can test both male and female subjects. In addition, the person may have emptied their bladder a short while before requiring to test for drugs, this will lead to delays that you will not have to deal with when using a saliva test.

However, some saliva testing units can be very large and heavy and are not particularly portable, so organisations need to ensure they select a compact and easy to use system. Saliva testing can also be more expensive per test than urine testing, so is less viable in organisations and industries with small budgets where many tests need to be performed on a frequent basis.

While saliva testing solutions have gained popularity because of their perceived less intrusive nature, they can be expensive, and are not always the best possible solution. Urine testing remains a useful option.

Organisations need to consider both the nature of the testing and the cost involved, as well as the specific circumstances of their business and industry. Partnering with an expert service provider who can assist with this decision will ensure that the most appropriate equipment is supplied to maximise return on investment and optimise safety.

Photo caption: Rhys Evans, Director of ALCO-Safe.