Positive Pot Test: Coming Clean On The Dirty Headlines About Baby Soap

By Sonia Alvarado, OTIS Teratogen Information Specialist

The headlines were scary and highly alarming: “Baby Soap Linked To Newborns’ Positive Pot Test,” warned one headline on MSNBC. Another, rather cynically, misinformed “Newborns Testing Positive For Marijuana Thanks To Baby Soap.” These headlines are designed to sell stories and they were highly effective at promoting the news articles across the web.

In reading the responses from the public on various news outlets, it was clear that many had been misinformed or misunderstood what researcher, Steven W. Cotton, and colleagues from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, had intended. Responses ran the gamut, with many blaming the presence of chemicals in baby products, others blaming the manufacturers of baby products, and, still, others believing that the infants were being drugged!

First of all, let me put to rest the idea that the infants are being drugged. There is no such allegation and there is no allegation that the detergents in the washes or other baby products are harming infants in any way. The research article published in the journal Clinical Biochemistry under the title “Unexpected interference of baby wash products with a cannabinoid (THC) immunoassay,” reported the conclusions of a study that had been conducted to test the potential for external chemicals interfering with a commonly used drug screening test. Urine drug testing (UDI) is a common screening test performed at many clinics or hospitals and work sites.

According to the authors, they were conducting routine quality assurance of the various screening tests that are used in their laboratory and checking for what is termed “cross reactivity” of medications. It is well known that use of some medications can trigger a false positive on some drug screens. The newborn nursery had reported that there had been an increase in positive UDI’s, with a resulting negative follow up test (using meconium). What intrigued the authors was that when they did a search of the documented exposures to mom/baby, they found no history of exposure to a known cross-reacting agent. So what could be causing the false positives, they asked themselves? They began their search in the most obvious location: the newborn nursery.

The newborn nursery uses an array of baby products that include baby wipes, shampoo, diapers, cotton balls, washes, etc. The ingredients on many of the liquid products overlap.

Testing with volunteer provided, drug-free urine, found no reactivity with the baby wipes, gauze, cotton balls, however, various washes/liquids did interfere with the test, with variable levels of reactivity resulting in false positives.

So what is the fuss all about? The UDI is not a test, right? It’s a screening tool, as we have said earlier. Ideally, if the UDI is positive, a repeat test of higher accuracy would be done to confirm the results. The UDI is not intended to be proof positive of exposure. The UDI’s are used because they are less expensive than testing tens of thousand infants with the more accurate, but more expensive test. And the turn-around time is also faster than sending the meconium off to a lab. However, we are not in an ideal world, and positive screens for UDI’s have the potential to disrupt families, trigger needless police investigations and cause deep emotional harm. The authors recommend that all positive UDI’s be followed up automatically with confirmatory tests as a matter of practice to prevent the legal and economic costs of acting on potentially erroneous information.

Sonia Alvarado is a bilingual (Spanish/English) Teratogen Information Specialist with the Organization of Teratology Information Specialists’ (OTIS) California affiliate. OTIS is a North American non-profit that aims to educate women about exposures, like medications and chemicals, during pregnancy and breastfeeding. In addition, Sonia provides educational talks regarding pregnancy/breastfeeding health in community clinics and high schools. She attended San Diego State University and has worked in Tuberculosis Control for San Diego County’s Public Health Department. Sonia’s work has also been published through several tuberculosis studies. In her spare time, she loves to volunteer with the March of Dimes as an expert speaker on themes related to pregnancy.

California women with questions or concerns about pregnancy/breastfeeding exposures can be directed to (800) 532-3749 or through instant message chat counseling on CTISPregnancy.org. Outside of California, please call OTIS counselors at (866) 626-OTIS (6847).

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