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In 2010, Pennsylvania mother Elizabeth Mort had her newborn taken into protective custody after testing positive for opiates in a routine hospital test. The cause? A single poppy seed bagel.

Fast forward to July 2013, and Mort’s story is splashed across the media after Lawrence County’s child welfare agency and Jameson Hospital agreed to settle the suit filed on Mort’s behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania (1). According to the lawsuit, the federal standard for opiates is 2000 ng/ml but Jameson Hospital, which has since changed its policies, alerted authorities after finding 300 ng/ml.

0813-205 bagel main-image

But this story is not so unusual. Popular myth debunking website Snopes (2) lists four cases of unfair dismissal involving the dreaded poppy seed. These – and the  subsequent law suits – perhaps prompted the change in threshold introduced in 1998 (3): “[DHHS] amendments raised the initial and confirmatory test opiate thresholds from 300 [ng/ml] to 2000 ng/ml. The DHHS amendments also established a new requirement to test for 6-acetylmorphine (6-AM), a metabolite that comes only from heroin, using a 10 ng/ml confirmatory level, for specimens that have tested positive for morphine on the confirmatory test at the 2000 ng/ml level.”

Quite why the hospital chose to report 300 ng/ml as a positive result two years after the law had been changed is unclear, but such a high-profile false-positive case certainly gives pause for thought: are there other serious miscarriages of justice out there?

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About the Author
Rich Whitworth

Rich Whitworth completed his studies in medical biochemistry at the University of Leicester, UK, in 1998. To cut a long story short, he escaped to Tokyo to spend five years working for the largest English language publisher in Japan. "Carving out a career in the megalopolis that is Tokyo changed my outlook forever. When seeing life through such a kaleidoscopic lens, it's hard not to get truly caught up in the moment." On returning to the UK, after a few false starts with grey, corporate publishers, Rich was snapped up by Texere Publishing, where he spearheaded the editorial development of The Analytical Scientist. "I feel honored to be part of the close-knit team that forged The Analytical Scientist – we've created a very fresh and forward-thinking publication." Rich is now also Content Director of Texere Publishing, the company behind The Analytical Scientist.

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