Family Matters

Eating Poppy Seeds in Pregnancy, an Ill-Advised Habit

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The advice to stop eating once labor kicks in has always seemed a bit draconian to me. Giving birth is hard work; why not munch if you’re hungry?

Now, in light of an incident that sounds like it’s cribbed from a Seinfeld episode, be advised to select your snack very carefully: a mom in western Pennsylvania recently lost custody of her newborn after the poppy seeds dotting her bagel yielded a positive drug test.

Pennsylvania law permits hospitals to administer blood tests to check if new mothers have drugs in their system. New mother Elizabeth Mort had downed a Dunkin Donuts everything bagel on the morning she gave birth last month; she maintains she failed the test because of the poppy seeds on her everything bagel. (Heroin comes from poppies, hence the connection.) (More on 5 Pregnancy Taboos Explained (or Debunked))

Three days after she delivered at Jameson Hospital in New Castle, Lawrence County, child welfare workers came to her house, seized her infant and placed the baby in foster care.

“This is bizarre,” says Mark Hudak, chief of the division of neonatology at the University of Florida College of Medicine, Jacksonville, and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Drugs. “This can’t be the policy because there would be a lot more mothers this would come up with and you don’t hear about this happening with them.”

In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that hospital officials and police may not test pregnant women for drugs without their knowledge, even though a fetus might suffer. In a 6-to-3 ruling, the panel championed a woman’s right to privacy, scuttling a South Carolina policy designed to detect drug abusers.

Nearly a decade later, there are no national standards regarding drug-testing mothers (nor is there much in the way of data about legitimate drugs and pregnant women); guidelines vary from state to state and from hospital to hospital. Hospitals that do test new moms rely on analyses that indicate only that a woman tests positive for the presence of drugs; they almost certainly do not employ specialized labs that can determine the source of the drugs — poppy seeds versus heroin, for example. (More on Photos: Pregnant Belly Art)

That poppy seeds can yield a positive drug test has been shown before; in 1998, an article in Forensic Science International compared drug concentrations in subjects who’d eaten rolls with poppy seeds and poppy seed cake (the cake packed a more pungent punch). After snacking on cake infused with an average of 0.165 ounces (4.69 grams) of seeds per slice, participants tested positive for opiates for up to 24 hours.

“These findings demonstrate that the poppy seed defense could be used as an argument in medico-legal and employment medical cases,” reported the British researchers in their abstract. “Great care should therefore be taken when interpreting the data produced when screening for opiates.”

There was even a Seinfeld episode about such a scenario, in which Elaine tested positive — twice — for drugs and lost her job, only to realize her favorite poppy seed muffins were to blame.

ACLU attorney Sara Rose says the hospital and county workers neglected to thoroughly investigate before taking the baby, who has since been returned to Mort.

None too pleased, Mort will likely file suit, according to the ACLU.

Can you blame her?

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