Turns out that the Seinfeld episode where Elaine failed a drug test from a bagel is legit: This week, news of two people failing drug tests after eating poppy seed bagels is traveling across the internet. There's a Maryland mom who tested positive for opiates while in labor and her daughter had to stay in the hospital for five days for monitoring and a New York City corrections officer who failed a random drug test and lost his job.
Since poppy seeds are derived from opium poppies, they can contain traces of morphine that wouldn't get you high but could show up on a drug test—a very sensitive drug test. Because of this possibility, the federal government revised its workplace drug testing policies in 1998. The problem is that not all hospitals or human resources departments follow the updated federal guidelines.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) raised the benchmark from morphine concentrations of over 300 nanograms per milliliter (300 ng/mL) to concentrations of 2,000 ng/mL, effective May 1, 1998. HHS explained in a notice of the change that "at the 300 ng/mL level, many who have not used heroin but had taken a prescribed codeine or morphine medication or eaten normal dietary amounts of poppy seeds have also tested positive."
In the case of Elizabeth Eden, the Maryland mom, the hospital where she delivered in April still uses the 300 ng/mL cutoff. The hospital reported her to the state and not only did her baby have to stay in the hospital for five days, she was assigned a state case worker for a home checkup. The case was eventually closed. Multiple lawsuits have been filed and settled after parents have had their newborns taken away after eating poppy seed bagels or poppy seed dressing.
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The New York City Department of Corrections also uses 300 ng/mL as the cutoff, which is why a jail guard named Eleazer Paz was suspended in 2016 after his random urine test came back positive for morphine and codeine. Paz was reinstated on modified duty after a hair follicle test and a second urine test and toxicology expert testified on his behalf when his case went to trial this spring. In June, the judge said he concluded that "the most likely source of the positive morphine and codeine test results was the ingestion of poppy seeds and not the use of medications," and recommended the proceedings be dismissed. But, yesterday, the Department of Corrections declined to take the judge's recommendation and fired Paz anyway.
How many poppy seeds does it take to fail a test under the lower, older standard? There has been some research on the topic but really It's impossible to know because we don't know how much morphine residue is on each seed. The US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) says on its website that the amount "depends on how well the poppy seeds are cleaned and processed, which varies depending on the country the seeds are from and how and when they were harvested." For this reason, USADA tells athletes that the "most conservative approach would be to avoid poppy seeds a few days before and during competitions."
Granted, athletes are subject to even lower cutoffs for morphine than the old workplace drug testing threshold, but even the Federal Bureau of Prisons requires incarcerated people applying for temporary furloughs to agree not to consume poppy seeds. The application says: "It has been determined that consumption of poppy seeds may cause a positive drug test which may result in disciplinary action. As a condition of my participation in community programs, I will not consume any poppy seeds or items containing poppy seeds."
Judith Rossiter-Pratt, the chief of the OB/GYN department at the hospital where Eden delivered, told WBAL-TV that perhaps they should tell expectant mothers about their policy. "We don't typically educate patients," she said, "and it's a really good point that people probably should know that if you use poppy seeds before you have a toxicology screen that it could result in a false positive test."
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