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Hair Follicle Drug Test – Can Passive Exposure to Drugs Cause a Positive?

Q: I recently tested my teenager with a hair follicle drug test and it came back positive for marijuana. He claims that he didn’t smoke it, but rather he was just around it. I want to believe him, but is this kind of thing even possible? Can just being around drugs cause a positive test result?

-Cheryl, Providence, RI

A: Hi, that is a very good question that we receive on a fairly regular basis. It is possible that a hair follicle drug test would detect passive exposure, but it’s not extremely common. Hair follicle tests primarily detect metabolites that become embedded in the follicle via the bloodstream. When the hair follicle test is performed, the lab washes the hair before testing to remove any outside traces of the parent drug. Washing the hair and specific cutoff levels for testing are in place for the exact purpose of eliminating the possibility of secondhand positive results. In order to test positive from a secondhand exposure, your son would most likely need to be in a small, confined area where there was a good deal of smoke/vapors that he was indirectly inhaling.

You might ask for a quantitative value on your son’s result. You can make the correlation that a positive result from passive exposure would be relatively low, whereas a direct positive would be higher. Unfortunately there is no way to be absolutely sure. You might consider a urine drug screen, which carries a shorter window for detection but is not as easily affected by passive exposure. Blood testing is a way to tell if someone is under the influence at the time they are tested, but once again the window for detection is extremely limited.

Sometimes the best way to deter drug use is to utilize random drug screening. Often times the knowledge that you can be brought in at any point for a drug screen is a great incentive to stay clean. Ultimately, it is your decision as the parent on how to handle the situation, but hopefully this helps.