SANTA ANA — Drug offenders soon may be sweating out the results of their drug tests--literally.
A new skin patch, recently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, detects the use of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, marijuana and PCP through sweat. Worn for up to 14 days, it is then sent to a lab for testing.
Orange County's Probation Department plans to begin using the "sweat patch" on a limited basis within a few weeks, said department spokesman Rod Speer. It already has been used in some pilot programs throughout the country.
"We do urine testing as a straight course of business to check on people who are using drugs," Speer said. "This would be another way to do it. It gives you the ability to check for continuous use."
The window of detection with a urine test is roughly 12 to 72 hours. But the patch retains evidence of drugs for two weeks. It also is the only drug test that specifically detects heroin.
"There have been a variety of ways people have tried to detect the use of drugs through sweat, ranging from testing someone's sweaty clothes to putting them in a bodysuit and on to a treadmill, but none of that was practical," said Ed Collom, a vice president of PharmChem Laboratories in Menlo Park, which developed the product.
Since the patch cannot be removed from the arm without detection, it all but eliminates cheating, said Dan Verweil, chief executive officer of Sentencing Concepts Inc., an Anaheim company that works with the courts and probation departments on alternative sentencing methods for low-risk offenders.
"The only way to actually beat the sweat patch is to actually have the thing removed," he said. "They have a stake in making sure the patch stays on. Once it comes off, it can't go back on. It takes on a different shade. We know if it's come off and been reapplied."
While the Probation Department has not yet begun sampling the product, Orange County Superior Court Judge David T. McEachen has used it in a few cases in the county's drug court.
"One person volunteered to use it to prove to me that he wasn't using drugs," McEachen said. "He used it to keep himself honest."
McEachen said the biggest drawback to using the patch is its cost, which is currently three times more than a $6 urine test.
"I think in the future, the cost will come down," McEachen said. "There's some advantages to it. By using sweat, it absorbs everything. If you used heroin, you used heroin. You can't talk about poppy seeds," which can have identical results in drug tests.
The 2-by-3-inch patch, invented by Sudormed Inc. in Santa Ana, resembles a bandage and can be worn on the upper outer arm or the lower midriff. It consists of an adhesive plastic film that holds an absorbent pad against the skin. It is waterproof and can be worn during most normal activities, including swimming and bathing.
Orange County officials said a potential roadblock is the fact that the product has not yet been challenged in court in a Kelly-Frye hearing, which determines the admissibility of scientific evidence. The 1923 Kelly-Frye ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court found that scientific evidence had to have "general acceptance" by scientists. Urinalysis has met that criteria.
"Urinalysis is the test of choice, and we want the same thing to happen to the patch," Verweil said.