Drug testing at your fingertips: Unique test examines nail clippings because "kids aren't honest"

DES PLAINES, Illinois -- It’s a new tool to test for drugs and alcohol in children and teens and it’s right at your fingertips.

“The kids that we’re seeing, we’re struggling with getting accurate information about what they are actually doing,” said Mary Simon, executive director for the Washington County-based Elevate Community Resource Center. “Kids aren’t honest.  Parents don’t know what’s going on.”


Elevate helps at-risk kids with a number of behavioral issues, including drug and alcohol use.  Elevate is asking its clients to ‘hand’ over some information -- namely, their fingernails.

“One of the things we do as a part of our process to try and figure out what’s going on -- and how do we help them -- is perform what’s called a biomarker test,” said Simon.

Nail clippings

Just 10 clippings the width of a quarter can give councilors and parents a three-month history of abuse.

“With youth, we test for five different basic drugs: alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines and opiates," said Simon.

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

Elevate takes the clippings and donor consent forms and slips them in the mail.  From there, the fingernails are taken to a lab just across the border right outside of Chicago.

Drug Testing Laboratories, Inc. (USDTL) in Des Plaines, Illinois

“We kinda discovered this phenomenon in fingernails,” said Doug Lewis, the executive director for United States Drug Testing Laboratories, Inc. (USDTL) in Des Plaines, Illinois.  “For most people in treatment, getting through denial is the first stage in successfully treating them.”

Biomarker testing offers an undeniable confirmation of a person’s substance abuse.  Unlike a urine test, which can only show a three-day history, biomarkers can tell if a person has been bingeing over the course of three months.

Nail clippings

Lewis describes bingeing as six or more drinks in one sitting, or someone who smokes marijuana once a week.  Lewis says 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 biomarker testing.

Here’s how it works: as your nail grows, the chemicals in drugs bind with the keratin fibers in your hair and nails.  They grow out, keeping that data trapped for long periods of time.  Fingernail clippings have been found to be more accurate than hair samples because hair treatments and dyes can weaken the test.

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

Biomarker testing

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

What happens in the USDTL lab also gives folks like Simon more tools in their youth substance use prevention programs.

“We know that the younger a youth starts using alcohol or drugs, the more likely they are to become dependent later on,” said Simon.

Biomarker testing

It could be the test that ‘nails’ any mystery about an addict’s behavior.  Especially in Washington County, where Simon says heroin use in particular has reached record levels: “We’re seeing it more and more and more.  We’re not exactly sure .”

Biomarker testing is used in adults too. In many cases, the testing is court-ordered.