An Alabama mother is calling for institutional changes after she lost custody of her baby within hours of giving birth Tuesday. Citing a same-day drug screening, health officials said they had detected traces of opiates in her system.

But she was clean.

Rebecca Hernandez was forced to spend three days apart from her newborn boy as she awaited a confirmatory test. By then, her doctor had already theorized a likely culprit behind the false-positive result: the poppy seed bread Hernandez ate Monday.

“This is a nightmare for the whole family,” Hernandez told WAFF through an interpreter. “A newborn baby has to be close to mom. They have to be with the mom. That’s the most important time in their life to be close to the mom when they’re just born.”

Hernandez, who also has a 13-month-old child, was reunited with her baby Friday — but only after state lab tests confirmed she was not on drugs. The infant, who was being taken care of by Hernandez’s aunt and uncle during the wait, also tested negative.

Poppy seeds, which are derived from opium poppies, sometimes contain traces of morphine that trigger a positive result in a drug test.

The woman’s doctor, an obstetrician-gynecologist based in Huntsville, did not respond to a message requesting comment Monday. Speaking to WAFF, Yashica Robinson said it would behoove Crestwood Medical Center to rely on confirmatory tests rather than same-day results to avoid harmful outcomes like this one.

“Screening tests can have what we call false-positive results where other things can interfere,” Robinson told the Huntsville-based network. “You can have a substance that a patient eats. Like in this case, poppy seeds can make them test positive for opioids.”

Crestwood Medical Center did not return a call to its media relations line Monday afternoon, and its policies pertaining to drug tests were not immediately clear. In a statement to WAFF, the center said it was “committed to following the law and regulatory requirements as well as ensuring the health and safety of our patients.”

“Our hospital also incorporates patient care practices that are established by credentialed members of our medical staff so as to further ensure safe and quality care for all of our patients,” the statement said.

But that explanation was insufficient for Hernandez and her doctor, who are now asking Crestwood Medical Center and hospitals with similar policies to reconsider their procedures. Her case recalls an incident involving a Maryland mother who ate a poppy seed bagel on the morning she went into labor in 2018. The woman, Elizabeth Eden, told WBAL-TV that while she was having contractions, a doctor said she had tested positive for opiates and refused to test her again.

The mother, who called the situation “traumatizing,” was forced to wait as her daughter remained in the hospital for five days.

In 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit on behalf of a woman whose 3-day-old daughter was taken away for five days after the woman ate a poppy seed bagel and failed a drug test, The Washington Post previously reported. The suit alleged that in its testing, Jameson Hospital in New Castle, Pa., had cited a threshold lower than what the federal government uses to test its employees for drugs.

The hospital and county settled for $143,500 and agreed to change their policies, renewing the focus on medical facilities that rely on outdated cutoff limits for opiate tests.

The potential for false positives — often caused by poppy seed bagels or prescribed medications — led the Department of Health and Human Services to revise workplace drug-testing policies more than two decades ago, increasing the threshold for opiates by nearly 700 percent, The Post’s Antonia Noori Farzan reported after the Eden case:

Before the guidelines were updated in 1998, individuals whose urine tests showed morphine concentrations of over 300 nanograms per milliliter were considered to have tested positive for opiates.
“These levels were selected in an attempt to provide the greatest opportunity to identify anyone who may have used heroin; however, at the 300 ng/mL level, many who have not used heroin but had taken a prescribed codeine or morphine medication or eaten normal dietary amounts of poppy seeds have also tested positive,” explained a notice in the Federal Register.
The Department of Health and Human Services raised the limit to 2,000 nanograms per milliliter ― meaning, according to one forensic scientist whom the New York Times interviewed, that you could eat three large poppy seed bagels and still pass the test.
But some hospitals still use the lower cutoffs when testing new and expectant mothers. St. Joseph Medical Center, where Elizabeth Eden gave birth, screens for 300 nanograms per milliliter, since some drug users might test negative otherwise, Judith Rossiter-Pratt, the head of the obstetrics and gynecology department, told WBAL-TV.

Specifics on Hernandez’s initial test results were not immediately available Monday. In any case, she told WAFF, Crestwood Medical Center should use more discretion before separating another mother from her child.

“I understand everything is a process. I understand you have to follow rules,” Hernandez told WAFF. “They should’ve done some more research before they decide to call” the Department of Human Resources.

Antonia Noori Farzan contributed to this report.

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