Photograph courtesy of The Amethyst House

The Amethyst House is a social service agency helping citizens who struggle with alcohol and drug addiction. Agency head Tom Cox is promoting the use of new, inexpensive saliva tests that individuals can self-administer for blood-alcohol levels.

Far too often police and paramedics race to the scenes of drunk driving accidents, often because the drivers got behind the wheel without realizing just how intoxicated they actually were.

But after 30 years in the alcohol and drug addiction industry, Thomas W. Cox, executive director of Amethyst House, has a tool he thinks could give the emergency responders some relief.

Last month, in honor of National Alcohol and Drug Abuse Recovery month, he announced the organization's newest tool in the struggle -- alcohol and drug tests that work using saliva.

Cox explained that these tests, after being in development for several years, are more private, hygienic and cost-efficient than traditional drug and alcohol tests, which normally cost around $35.

Because of the low cost, he hopes that the new test will find its way into the homes of those who typically wouldn't consider testing, especially families with teenage drivers.

"I think that these tests are really a cheap and easy way for parents to make sure their kids aren't drinking and driving," Cox said.

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Even if parents choose not to administer the test, he thinks that just having them available will be a deterrent.

"I've had several parents buy the saliva test solely to have one around, as a just-in-case type thing," he said.

The test is a way for not only parents, but for schools, employers and designated drivers to discourage drinking and driving.

"A lot of the time, designated drivers don't even realize how intoxicated they are when it comes time to head home for the night," says Cox. "While they may not necessarily feel drunk, their alcohol levels are probably higher than they know."

Cox explained that the traditional formula for determining how much alcohol can be consumed before legally driving is three beers, shots or glasses of wine for males and two for females.

While this is a guideline, weight, age, tolerance and body fat can alter the amounts, he said.

So before driving home after a night out, Cox suggests a simple saliva sobriety test.

However, it's important to understand the way the process works and follow the directions.

According to Cox, the procedure is simple.

First, nothing can go in the user's mouth for 10 minutes.

Second, a piece of paper is placed on the tongue, which tests the saliva for alcohol, and in two minutes results show up.

Cox also believes that test inaccuracy is no concern.

"According to statistics, it's probably more accurate than hand-held Breathalyzers because saliva better demonstrates blood alcohol level," he said.

"I think more parents, at least those who know their children are drinking, should seriously consider purchasing these tests."

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Tammy Axel, a 46-year-old Bloomington resident, wishes she had had the opportunity to test her son before he lost his job, license and, almost, his two daughters in an alcohol-related car accident.

Axel said the saliva test is a major improvement over past forms of Breathalyzers, which she always considered too confusing and impractical to use.

And though she considers it wishful thinking, she believes that having had more ability to monitor her son's drinking problem could have made a difference.

"If I could have stopped my son from abusing alcohol, which then led to abusing drugs, I would do anything in the world," Axel said. "In adolescents, I think it's absolutely necessary to know what is going on."

Axel's son spent a month admitted in Amethyst House's men's residence and is now going through Monroe County Drug Court.

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While IU Police Department is not yet using the new saliva test, it is not out of the question in the future, said Capt. Jerry L. Minger.

The state currently approves only one form of alcohol testing, the Breathalyzer, he explained. And it would take many years for any new test to be approved.

He agreed that there is community benefit in using the saliva test - especially for designated drivers who have been drinking but feel okay to drive.

"As far as it concerns law enforcement, it's just another device to help people determine if they should drive - not something we can use to gauge their sobriety," Minger said. "People should use this for their own safety. We shouldn't have to be involved."

Minger is hopeful about the success of the saliva test, but he noted that several variations have preceded it, such as strips that are placed on a driver's forehead to measure intoxication. And many more will follow.

These "intoxicators," as he refers to them, are limited in their effectiveness, as only certain people actually take the time to use them.

"What I find is that the people who use devices like this are the people who are already conscious or are forced," said Minger. "Otherwise, they wouldn't over-consume and become extremely over-intoxicated as it is. If they've already exhibited bad decision-making, I'm not sure how much a saliva strip will stop them."

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A second kit is available at the Amethyst House for drug testing. And though this test shows the presence of common drugs such as marijuana and cocaine, it doesn't show the amounts present.

Cox sees it as the Amethyst House's duty to make these tests available for as many local residents as are interested.

The nonprofit addiction treatment center has been a part of the Bloomington community for the past 27 years. It provides housing, treatment and employment services to men and women struggling with addictions to drugs, alcohol or gambling.

The residence is full, and there is typically a waiting list, according to Cox.

Whether the new saliva test helps families, designated drivers or recovering abusers, he says there is no other job he could ever see himself in.

"It's been such a rewarding experience," he said. "I won't retire until I'm 107. It's challenging and it's disappointing at times, but it's just worth it."

Ashlee Deon can be reached at .