For the love of a poppy seed bagel, she may have lost a new job

Could a craving for poppy seed bagels cost someone a job? There's a strong possibility that happened to a 34-year-old Baltimore woman who recently applied for a position as a pediatric nurse practitioner at an inner-city community health center.

Two weeks ago, she was offered the job on condition she submit to a drug test. Three hours later, she gave a urine sample. A week later, the test turned up positive for morphine, and the nurse was devastated. "I don't do drugs," she says. "I have been a nurse for 12 years. I worked at Georgetown University Hospital, University of Maryland Hospital and Hopkins as a medical research nurse. I went back to school to become a nurse practitioner and I had hoped to start off as one with this job."


Her prospective employer won't cut her a break, won't allow her a second urinalysis and won't consider the possibility that the nurse's love for poppy seed bagels might have betrayed her.

I know, I know. This sounds like a lot of poppycock. But this nurse definitely had consumed poppy seeds within 24 hours of the test and there's scientific evidence to support her claim that traces of an opioid derived from poppy seeds could show up in a drug test.


"I don't allow myself too many pleasures," the nurse says. "But one of them is, between 10 and 11 o'clock, two or three times a week -- especially when I'm studying -- the lean corned beef and provolone on a poppy seed bagel from Sam & Noah's on Cold Spring Lane."

On Oct. 10, after being informed that her urinalysis was positive for morphine, the nurse asked the health center for reconsideration. She submitted herself to a session with a physician, who examined her arms for evidence of intravenous drug use -- he found none -- and asked several questions about her use of over-the-counter medications (nothing there, either). Then, the nurse remembered an article she had read in a professional journal linking poppy seeds, which are commonly used in baking, to drug testing. She mentioned it to the doctor, who dismissed the possibility. The nurse was disqualified from consideration for employment with the health center. "And I had turned down other jobs because of this one," she says.

What's the story here? Could this nurse be the victim of a bagel?

"Oh, yes, it's possible," says Anthony Tommasello, associate professor in the School of Pharmacy at the University of Maryland and director of the Office of Substance Abuse Studies. "It has been found that two tablespoons of poppy seeds will produce a sufficient amount of opioid molecules in the body to produce a positive result on a sensitive urine test." A few years ago, Tommasello says, a truck driver with a clean driving record tested positive for morphine and was threatened with the loss of his license -- until his wife mentioned to a medical review officer that her husband was fond of sandwiches made with poppy seed rolls. Journals of toxicology and forensic science have explored the effect of innocent consumption of poppy seeds on drug sampling in the workplace. You can look it up.

Joseph Goetzke, an attorney with the U.S. Army based at Fort Meade, recalled a case from a decade ago in Germany. A brigade chaplain tested positive for morphine and faced court martial until his wife happened to mentioned his consumption of a German poppy seed cake the evening before his urinalysis. The chaplain was eventually exonerated. Goetzke says a laboratory study, prompted by the chaplain's dilemma, showed subjects testing positive 24 hours after eating poppy seed cake. A study published in March in Contemporary Pediatrics reported that high morphine concentrations occasionally lasted up to 72 hours in some subjects.

Our bagel-loving nurse dug up a stack of the research on this topic and offered it to her prospective employer. It didn't change anything. She's back hunting a job. And indignant.

"I'm all for a drug-free workplace," she says. "But this is the kind of bad situation that can result. I am guilty until I prove myself innocent, and I don't know how to do that. . . . But I'm not going to take this lying down. I'm a valuable asset. If [the health center] is so strict that it would not consider mitigating circumstances -- like my references, like my character, like poppy seed bagels -- then I don't want to work for them."

Paramedic donates kidney


Here's a laurel to Brian Britcher, a 26-year-old city paramedic who gave up a kidney for his dad. He's back on limited duty with the Fire Department. His father, Fire Capt. Francis Britcher, is recuperating at home from the transplant surgery that took place in September at University Hospital. As a donor, Brian, a fourth-generation firefighter, was a "perfect match" for his father, and his decision to give up a kidney got the elder Britcher off the long waiting list for a donor. Brian's brothers, Bill and John, are also with the department. The prognosis for their dad is good, and Brian expects to return to active duty by December.

Boot walk away

From police report No. 1J10482, larceny, Baltimore: "Chief Investigator, Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, states that on 11-October-94 between the hours of 0015 and 0715 at 111 Penn Street, black Timberland boots (9 1/2 -10) were taken from a homicide victim (Donte Burnett). . . . Boots were on a table beside the deceased prior to the theft. No possible suspects and no witnesses which may have observed the theft. . . . Solvability factor: Poor."