Two US mothers sue hospitals over drug tests after eating poppy seed bagels

<span>Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

Few people would ever expect that the simple act of eating a poppy seed bagel could lead to the investigation of young mothers and their newborn babies over suspected opiate use, but that is exactly what two women in New Jersey say happened to them.

The pair of new mothers are alleging the hospitals in which they gave birth violated their rights after performing drug tests on them without their consent. The drug tests came back positive and led them to be reported for possible neglect or abuse just days after giving birth.

But both mothers believe poppy seed bagels they ate for breakfast, combined with the highly sensitive drug tests used by the hospitals, were the reason for false positive results. They have now sued the hospitals involved, in a move backed up by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which also says the tests were a gross violation of their privacy.

“I feel violated. This whole ordeal has been extremely stressful and has turned our lives upside down and now, because of what happened, I live in fear of medical tests and how they might be used against me as a mother,” said Kaitlin K, one of the mothers, in a statement. “I found out later that the lab used a testing threshold far, far lower than what the federal government uses.”

Although some in the medical community believe the idea that poppy seeds can result in a positive drug test is not possible, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), “it may be possible to exceed the morphine threshold by eating foods with poppy seeds and USDA can’t predict how long morphine or morphine metabolites from poppy seeds will stay in your system”.

Poppy seeds do not contain opium but can “become contaminated with opiates contained in the milky latex of the seed pod covering them” during harvesting, according to the University of Florida Health.

Earlier this year, even the US defense department issued a warning to service members before drug tests, urging them not to consume foods with poppy seeds because they risk testing positive for opium.

After the positive tests from the two mothers the hospitals involved – Hackensack University medical center and Virtua Voorhees hospital – reported both mothers to the state’s department of child protection and permanency (DCPP) for possible abuse or neglect.

One of the mothers, referred to as Kate L in the complaint filed by the ACLU, told the Guardian her newborn baby was held at the hospital in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for longer than medically necessary.

“For the first four days [after the birth], we did not know that we were being investigated. The hospital wasn’t doing anything. They were just holding her. We questioned it a little bit, but I thought that they just had our best interests,” she said.

Kate said the hospital wanted to keep her baby for monitoring, but every test came back normal. That’s when mother’s intuition crept in.

“I knew she was fine. She was eating the way they wanted her to eat. She was being a normal newborn. Once we were discharged, and once I knew they were investigating us – that’s when we weren’t trusting the doctors any more. Because I already knew that they lied to us about the drug testing.”

She said she distinctly recalled one of the doctors in the unit telling her that they needed to feel “comfortable” before sending the baby home with her and her husband.

“It just really hurt me that they were just questioning my judgment and accusing me of something that I didn’t do,” Kate said.

Kate’s older son, a seven-year-old who was home at the time of the birth of his new sibling, was questioned by the state agency before Kate was allowed to return home. Even months after leaving the hospital, Kate said she was subjected to regular drug tests and visits from the DCPP. She called the ordeal “demeaning”.

“No one should be subjected to unnecessary and non-consensual drug tests. Our clients are sending a clear message to hospitals that these testing and reporting policies are unacceptable,” said ACLU-NJ lawyer Molly Linhorst.

The DCPP’s investigation into Kate and her husband concluded in November, but cases like these stay in the state’s system for at least three years.

“It’s just a lingering, painful thing I’m always thinking about,” Kate said. “I feel violated – our rights and our family. Giving birth should be one of the most like joyous events in your life, and everything that happened has completely destroyed that for me. Every time I think about [my baby] being born, this is what will be at the forefront of my mind.”

Elenore Wade, an assistant professor at Rutgers Law School, said that because both women weren’t told their urine was being tested for a drug test or explained the consequences of that, the hospitals are rightfully the target of this complaint.

“The lack of informed consent for the testing is partly what I see as the biggest issue here, especially because pregnant people are getting their urine tested routinely for protein levels,” she said.

Also at issue here is the the drug test performed by the hospital, which Wade said typically had a concentration level “15 times lower than the threshold that used to be used, and even more, proportionally lower than the threshold that the federal government now uses just because of all the false positives that come with these kinds of opiate tests”.

Wade added: “It kind of cuts against everything that we would want our own perinatal care experience to be, especially because it’s already a very stressful time for for people.”