In anticipation of my first VASAP class, I spent quite a bit of time looking up information on urine testing for alcohol. There seems to be quite a bit of confusing information out there, so I thought I’d post what I learned and if you know any differently, please feel free to comment with corrections or your experiences on this matter.
I should say first that I’m not advocating drinking if you’re on probation and have signed any agreement or contract where you agree to abstaining from alcohol during that period. I’m also not saying that I think all of these agreements are appropriate. Enough said for now- I’ll go into this further another post later in the DUI Penalties and Probation section.
The dip test or strip test (strip of paper dipped into urine) can generally detect alcohol for about the same time a breathalyzer can detect alcohol- about 6-24 hours. This depends on your liver health, metabolism, food you consumed, type of alcohol you consumed, how much you consumed, how often/how much you drink, if you’re a habitual or irregular drinker, age, sex, etc.. If you’re dehydrated, inactive, overweight and/or you’re a habitual drinker, alcohol may move through your system slower. I read one product’s site (for dip/strip tests) and it said alcohol in urine can be detected for up to 1-2 hours past detection in a blood test. I really don’t know how this is possible, but that’s what they said. AA says to play it safe with urine dip/strip tests, assume 48 hours. Well, that’s a big range of numbers. And that’s to be expected when there are so many variables. If you’re going to drink and expect a urine dip test/strip test, make sure you consume a lot of water before, while, and after you drink. And play it safe- don’t drink heavy amounts before a test or if you think you’ll be tested. If it were me, I’d refrain from drinking for 24-48 hours to play it safe. (If I was going to drink closer to the 24-hour range, I’d keep it light- a beer or two or a glass of wine or two at the most and I’d drink tons of water).
The EtG urine test is another story. This can supposedly test for alcohol for up to 80 hours. Well, it doesn’t test for alcohol, really- it tests for a by-product of alcohol (ethyl glucuronide or EtG). This is in your system long after the alcohol is metabolized. I found all sorts of people online that said they passed this test a day or two after heavy drinking, but my guess is that’s just not true. To play it really safe, you should count on 4-5 days of abstinence before taking a test like this. I found some places online that said to wait 48-50 hours, but if you want to be absolutely safe, abstain for the full 4-5 days.
The EtG was introduced not too long ago and from what I understand, it was very popular at first. However, it was found to be super sensitive- so much so that they were having problems with false positives. Common household items (incidental exposure) can set easily set it off. They couldn’t find the cut-off value to distinguish the difference between alcohol consumption versus incidental exposure in the results. This got so much bad press that the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration issued an advisory to monitoring programs, law enforcement, and the courts about its sensitivity. They basically said that it shouldn’t be used outside clinical settings or as a sole source of determining alcohol relapse. There are lists of products that can make you test positive (such as Purell, Listerine, air sanitizers, cold medicines, and washes (see The Household Products Database for items containing ethanol, as well as this site). Good to know.
But that doesn’t mean all agencies stopped using these tests. It just means that if it’s used on you and you fail (and you didn’t consume alcohol for 4-5 days prior to the test) and if they use this against you for any probationary requirements or monitoring program, you probably have a good case to argue. For the sake of fairness, they also recommend test subjects be provided a list of products (at the time you agree to abstain from drinking) that can cause false positives as a forewarning. If you take one and fail, you might be able to request either a retest or opt for a blood test. I’ve also read some issues have been found where test administrators mixed up samples and I suggest that you to take full control of your chain of custody for your sample. What worries me is that from what I understand, a monitoring group can apply for a certification in EtG testing, but I have yet to find anywhere online that says it’s required. If you’re being tested with an EtG and your group is not certified, I’d be worried. Even if they are certified, I’d still be worried.
For testing, breathalyzers are the least expensive, then comes dip testing followed by EtG. Blood tests are the most expensive tests. So, it makes sense that most court programs’ likelihood of using a test is in that order, as well. However, it depends on your state and region as to what they expect from you, since you’ll be the one to pay for these tests. At ADAPT, I was told that I would be urine tested 3-4 times during my time with them. (I later learned that you’d only be given 4 tests if you failed any of the tests). I think it was an EtG test because it was going to cost $35 each time. However, I doubt that to some extent because they should have warned us about other products that might interfere. After all, I didn’t sign any agreement warning me about exposure to hand sanitizers, over-the-counter cold remedies, air sprays, or the like. It was just the cost of the test that led me to think it might be an EtG. Maybe they just made up some arbitray cost for the time involved and sending them to a lab (though from my understanding, dip/strip tests are often done right there and then after the sample is collected). I just don’t know. So far, in VASAP, I only know that I will be breathalyzed- it’s the cheapest way to test and quickest. And that makes sense since I’m now in the lowest form of treatment following a DUI.
A blood test, honestly, is the only true BAC measurement out there. (FYI: A blood test can detect small amounts of alcohol- about 1-3 ounces- within 10-12 hours for the non-habitual, occasional user. Heavier drinkers (with impaired livers) tend to ‘store’ alcohol in their liver from successive drinking sessions and it takes much longer to process the alcohol out of your system- this can affect the results of both blood tests and urine tests). Breathalyzers have all sorts of issues and they don’t even measure true alcohol- just compounds in your breath (and they can easily be confused with other products in the methyl group and provide false positives). Urine tests have issues, too. In the DUI world, they’re considered the least reliable to be used soley to test alcohol levels (they are more likely to be used where alcohol and drugs are suspect). According to many dip/strip test products’ websites, though, they claim they are reliable and accurate. Of course- they are selling a product.
According to many DUI lawyers’ websites, the urine test is the most questionable. They say this because a urine test doesn’t tell the actual BAC- it just reports whether or not alcohol is present in your system. The same goes for whether it’s a dip/strip test or EtG test. Because of this, a urine test for alcohol can be discredited. You would think if there was such a high rate of urine tests being successfully challenged that law enforcement and monitoring groups would not use these tests (at least not by themselves), but they persist. So, I can’t speak to that- it just depends on where you are and what your area uses. If you’re facing a DUI charge and only a urine test was used to confirm your DUI, you probably have a good case of dismissing those results (and maybe reducing your charge to reckless driving or dismissing the case). If you’re in a monitoring program, a urine test can also be discredited or you can ask for subsequent testing and I would talk with your lawyer about that immediately.
In summary: Your best bet? Don’t drink while you’re in a monitoring program. It may not be worth it especially if you don’t know what test you might get. If I drank during my program, and I have, I’d abstain 12-24 hours before a breathalyzer, 12-48 hours before a dip/strip urine test, and 4-5 days before an EtG. In some areas, you don’t get any warning about testing, so these times may not be helpful. For example, if you can be called in at any moment for testing, my suggestion would be to just not drink.