How an innocent lunchtime bagel could ruin a promising career

Faulty testing for drugs could lead to people being turned down unfairly for jobs, according to the scientist who proved the athlete Diane Modahl was innocent of taking steroids.

John Honour, of University College London, said that the Government should act now to set standards for drugs testing, to avoid injustices against innocent people whose samples test positive. Testing for use of drugs such as cannabis, heroin and cocaine is one of the fastest-growing commercial areas in the UK.

Dr Honour told The Independent: "There aren't any standards for positive tests or for how the tests should be done ... If you failed a pre-employment test you might not even hear - you'd just not get offered the job."

A growing number of organisations, including Shell, BP, the Prisons Service, banks and British Rail have recently introduced random testing, and a number of companies - including Shell - ask applicants for some jobs to undergo drugs tests.

Dr Honour, of the Department of Molecular Pathology, has 25 years' experience in testing urine samples for steroids. In 1994 he began examining the tests carried out by a Spanish laboratory on a sealed urine sample provided by Ms Modahl.

That had shown a high level of breakdown products - metabolites - from the male hormone testosterone. That implied that Ms Modahl had taken the drug artificially.

But Dr Honour showed that bacteria found in urine could react with normal metabolites to produce testosterone. His evidence was crucial in reversing the August 1994 decision to ban Ms Modahl. Her name was eventually cleared last March.

He argues that similar problems could lurk for would-be employees as the use of drugs testing expands. "It's known that if you've been eating a bagel with poppy seeds on, you can test positive for opiates - drugs like heroin," he said. "The point is, each athletics test costs pounds 100, whereas companies are only paying about pounds 5."

The problem is that there is no clearly agreed standard for the minimum levels of metabolites which indicate the use of particular drugs.

"On the whole, the methods used are less sophisticated than those used by the IAAF, and there is no official regulation of companies that offer the tests," he said.

Unilabs, a London testing company, said that it was very careful to prevent "false positive" results. "We have a two-step procedure, so that if we find something in our first assay tests, we use chromatography and gas spectrometry to look for metabolites," said Fred Rutherford, head of scientific services.

People who claim innocence in industrial tribunals on drugs charges usually dropped their defence when evidence from Unilabs was presented, he added.

But not everyone adopts stringent standards. Dr Honour suggested that some testing companies might be profiting from the lack of standards in the fast-growing business of drugs testing.

"Most of the people in this area make their money from testing for companies. They do thousands of tests - so they don't want the bad side to come out. They would prop each other up," he said.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Night job: Pacha nightclub DJ, Joan Ribas, is the new kingmaker on the island
news
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family
film'I survived it, but I’ll never be the same,' says Arash Amel
Life and Style
Retailers should make good any consumer goods problems that occur within two years
tech(and what to do if you receive it)
Life and Style
healthIf one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
Life and Style
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K YR1: SThree: At SThree, we like to be dif...

Guru Careers: Software Developer / Web Developer

£30 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Software / Web Developer (PHP / MYSQL) i...

Guru Careers: Account Executive

£18 - 20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: An Account Executive is needed to join one...

Guru Careers: Software Developer / Software Engineer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Software Developer / Software Engineer i...

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada