Background: Considerable lives and money could be saved if one could detect early stages of lapsing/relapsing behavior in addicted persons (e.g., in safety-sensitive workplaces) and could disclose harmful drinking in social drinkers. Due to the serious public health problem of alcohol use and abuse worldwide, markers of alcohol use have been sought. Both ethyl glucuronide (EtG) and phosphatidyl ethanol (PEth) appear to have high sensitivity and specificity and a time frame of detection that may elucidate alcohol use not detected by standard testing. Our aim was to assess their potential for detecting recent covert alcohol use under controlled conditions.
Methods: Thirty-five forensic psychiatric inpatients in a closed ward who had committed a substance-related offense (§64 StGB), were followed for 12 months. The complete time spectrum of possible alcohol consumption was covered by the complementary use of breath and urinary ethanol (hours), urinary EtG (days), %carbohydrate-deficient transferrin (CDT)/PEth (weeks), and γ-glutamyltranspeptidase (GGT)/mean corpuscular volume (MCV) (weeks-months).
Results: Fourteen of the 146 urine samples examined were positive for EtG. In all EtG-positive cases, patients reported alcohol consumption of between 40 and 200 g of ethanol 12–60 hr prior to testing. Urinary and breath ethanol were positive in only one case. In the blood samples, PEth was not positive in any case and %CDT did not exceed the reference value. Isoelectric focusing showed no abnormal Tf subtypes.
Conclusions: The findings emphasize the diagnostic and therapeutic usefulness, specificity, and sensitivity of EtG as a marker of recent alcohol use. Such a test is needed in numerous settings, including alcohol and drug treatment (to detect lapse/relapse), in safety-sensitive work settings where use is dangerous or in other settings where use may be inappropriate (e.g., such as driving, workplace, pregnancy, or monitoring physicians or other professionals who are in recovery and working), or for testing other groups (such as children or those with medical problems) where alcohol use would be unhealthy or unsafe. The health, social and socioeconomic benefits arising from the future use of these markers is hard to overestimate.