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New tool tests for drugs in fingernail clippings

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DENVER -- The new tool to test for drugs and alcohol in children and teenagers is right at your fingertips.

“Kids aren’t honest. Parents don’t know what’s going on”, said Mary Simon, who works with at-risk kids.

By clipping a person’s fingernails, they can test them for drug and alcohol abuse.  The test can test for five basic drugs: alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines and opiates.

Just 10 clippings the width of a quarter can give counselors and parents a three-month history of abuse. Once the fingernail clippings have been collected and mailed, they are sent to a lab outside Chicago.

“For most people in treatment, getting through denial is the first stage in successfully treating them," said Doug Lewis, executive director at U.S. Drug Test Laboratories Inc.

This type of testing offers an undeniable confirmation of a person’s substance abuse, unlike a urine test, which can only show a three-day history.

Lewis said his lab processes nearly 500 samples every day.  It only takes 24 hours to get results.  USDTL is one of only four private labs in the country offering the biomarker testing.

“This is a test that really identifies people who indulge in dangerous drinking,” Lewis said.

How does it work?  What is the body telling us about drugs in its system?

The science behind it is that as a nail grows, the chemicals in drugs bind with the keratin, or protein fibers in hair and nails.  Fingernails grow out, keeping that data trapped for long periods of time.

The nails are broken down and processed in the machines, giving researchers a window into a history of substance abuse.

Fingernail clippings have been found to be more accurate than hair samples because hair treatments and dyes can weaken the test.

“It’s very difficult to beat the test, I mean really difficult to beat it,” Lewis said.

For a list of a local testing labs that will collect the fingernail clippings, go to usdtl.com and click on "Collector Locations" to input your location.