What is Does it Mean to be “Nanograms Over”?

As a nanomaterials research, I usually love seeing the word ‘nano’ in the news, but not in reference to finding out that AJ Allmendinger’s ‘B’ sample tested positive “within nanograms”.  I would have been very surprised if the B sample had come out any different than the A sample – a testing lab would not have gone public if they weren’t 99.99% positive their results were correct.  AJ has a lot of respect from people in the business who know him well.  We don’t know the specifics and shouldn’t speculate, but we can agree that, whatever the truth, it’s a very sad situation for everyone involved and the sport in general.

I’ve covered a number of issues about drug testing in general and answered some of your questions in previous posts.  I’ll reiterate that the limits at which a drug test is considered ‘positive’ are determined to take into account possible measurement limits of the equipment.  I wanted to address the statement by AJ’s manager specifically.

“This was not the news we wanted to hear and we will work to get to the source of what may have caused this. To that end, we have secured the services of an independent lab to conduct thorough testing on every product within AJ’s home and motor coach to find what might collaborate with his test, which created results that were within nanograms of accepted standards. We are working closely with NASCAR and Penske Racing to identify the next action steps in this process.”  (via The Daly Planet)

“Nano” is a metric prefix meaning “a billionth”.  A nanogram is one billionth of a gram.  A gram of sugar is about 1/4 teaspoon.  To understand a nanogram, go pour out a 1/4 teaspoon of sugar on a piece of waxed paper.

Divide the sugar into ten parts.  Each part is a decigram, or one-tenth of a gram.

Throw away nine parts and divide the tenth part into ten more parts.  Each part is a centigram or one-hundredth of a gram.

Throw away nine parts and divide the tenth part into ten more parts.  Each part is a milligram, or one-thousandth of a gram.

Do that six more times and one pile will be a nanogram.  We’re talking about really, really small quantities.

The problem is that “nanograms” is the wrong unit to use when talking about drug tests.  The quantity we’re interested in is nanograms per milliliter or ng/mL.  The limit for initial testing for amphetamine in federal drug testing is 500 ng/mL.  A secondary screen is considered to be positive if it exceeds 250 ng/mL.  We do not know whether NASCAR uses the federal guidelines or if they have stricter limits (which would be completely within their right to have), but at least the federal limit gives us an order of magnitude with which to compare.

Assuming the statement about the test being “nanograms over” actually means “nanograms per mL over”, let’s assume it was over by 5 ng/mL. If you assume the lower federal limit of 250 ng/mL, you’re talking about being over by 2%. That’s a very different situation that if the limit was 5 ng/mL and you were “a few nanograms” over because then you’re over by 20-100%.

When your science teachers annoyed you because you didn’t include the units in your answer, they weren’t doing it to be annoying.  This is exactly the situation they were trying to help you avoid.  The information provided is meaningless without knowing what the limit is and the correct units.  I realize that AJ’s people are probably reeling from this, but if you’re trying to explain how close the test was, you can’t do it with the information they provided.

If you were 2% over for a blood alcohol level of 0.08, your BAC would be 0.0816. Is your driving significantly more impaired at 0.o79 than 0.08?  Probably not, but that is the nature of having to define a line.  Drug testing is much like the requirements on the car that are tested during inspection.  There is a hard line and if you’re over, you’re over.  The lines are somewhat arbitrary, but they are well defined and known in advance.

Despite what many fans seem to think, it’s not our ‘right’ to know the specifics, but Allmendinger is in a no-win situation.  As I stated before, he almost has to disclose exactly what he tested positive for, what the limit was and what he tested if he is to redeem himself in the eyes of the fans.  Otherwise, he will be dogged by speculation that is probably a lot worse than the facts.

Right now, the Allmendinger camp is likely getting all the products they can find and having them tested to try to correlate the exact molecule found with the tests; however, given the lack of quality control of supplements (see this really well-written article by David Newton) and the fact that he may have been taking supplements from a bottle that he finished off and threw away, there is a low probability that he is going to be able to clear himself completely.







  1. Thank you Michael! Since I do nano for living, this is something I ought to be able to get right! Appreciate your reading and taking the time to comment.

  2. What I would like to see now in the interest of AJ, NASCAR, and the fans, would be to know the actual “stimulant” found and maybe even the actual amount over the limit. If it is the reported “nano” overage then maybe AJ would have even just a little bit (nano) of vindication. To continue the cloudiness just doesn’t seem to be in anyone’s best interest, especially after the debacle the Mayfield test became.

    Great description, thank you.

  3. Easier to understand would be “how many nanograms in a single crystal of sugar”?

    • Actually, it’s a little less clear because sugar crystals are not a standard size. It depends on the crystallization process that is used to granulate the sugar. Roughly, one crystal of white sugar weighs just a little less than 1000 nanogram.

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