Cat and mouse drug testing ‘games’ are not limited to the Olympics
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) investigation that exposed Russia’s manipulation of the doping control process highlighted the cat and mouse ‘games’ that happen at an elite sporting level. But elaborate methods to avoid detection of illicit drug use are not limited to the Olympic arena. They happen every week across Australia, and some of the attempted cover-up methods are astonishing.
Dr Charles Appleton, Chemical Pathologist and Director of Biochemistry and Toxicology at QML Pathology in Brisbane, says there are many reasons to test for illicit drugs including workplace safety and to provide evidence for legal cases. Most drug tests are performed on urine samples, and sometimes the collection process becomes a game of cat and mouse.
“We have had mothers with nursing experience collect drug-free urine from a friend or from their child. When they are called on to provide a urine sample for a drug test, they will pass a catheter through their urethra up into their bladder, and use this catheter to fill their bladder with the acquired drug-free urine before the drug test,” explains Dr Appleton.
“I have seen another case where a man using illicit drugs obtained urine from other people, and was then injecting it into his bladder through his lower abdomen using a lumbar puncture needle before each test. He was finally caught when one batch of his acquired urine turned up positive for cocaine. On that occasion the laboratory caught two people from the one sample!”
Dr Appleton says urine samples for drug testing must be collected according to the Australian Standard and tested at appropriately accredited laboratories. Some are collected under direct supervision, such as in legal disputes and from elite athletes and medical professionals. Other situations, such as workplace testing, require a pathology collector to stand outside the toilet while the sample is being obtained.
“When the pathology collector doesn’t witness the collection, the temperature of the urine must be taken within four minutes. This is to ensure the urine is close to body temperature which should indicate it has just been passed. But some people have ‘clean’ urine samples hidden on them, including stored in body cavities, to ensure it is as close to body temperature as possible in order to evade detection,” explains Dr Appleton.
He says drug testing for athletes is performed at a group of specialised laboratories that are set up to test for the vast array of banned substances for elite athletes. The list includes illicit and legal drugs, and the substances each athlete is tested for depends on their sport. For example, athletes whose sport requires strength might be tested for anabolic steroids, while athletes whose sport requires a high level of precision, such as pistol shooters, might be tested for blood pressure drugs that reduce the normal tremor which we can all experience.
Urine is the most common sample collected for drug testing, but Dr Appleton says you can test almost anything for drugs including blood, saliva, hair, sweat and fingernails. There are benefits and risks for each kind or specimen, and he says you need to keep sight of what they are being collected for and the desired outcome, which is to detect minimal levels of a drug in a person’s body.
Doping scandals in sport are nothing new, although the Russian team took this blight on sport to another level. Unfortunately the cat and mouse games associated with drug testing are not limited to the international sporting arena. They happen in our own backyard. Procedures to thwart attempts to evade detection are only as good as the staff enforcing them, so perhaps we could issue medals to the pathology staff involved in these cases to reward them for their outstanding efforts as well.
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