Phosphatidylethanol: The Potential Role in Further Evaluating Low Positive Urinary Ethyl Glucuronide and Ethyl Sulfate Results


  • The first two authors contribited equally to this work.

Reprint requests: Friedrich Martin Wurst, Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy II, Christian-Doppler-Hospital, Paracelsus Medical University, Ignaz-Harrer-Straße 79, A-5020 Salzburg, Austria; Tel.: +43 6624483 4601; Fax: +43 6624483 4604; E-mail:



Whereas urinary ethyl glucuronide (EtG) levels above 1,000 ng/ml reflect with a high probability ethanol (EtOH) consumption, levels below this cutoff are difficult to interpret as both extraneous (nonbeverage) EtOH exposure, recent drinking, and more distant high EtOH intake (several days ago) might yield similar results. This might be of particular relevance in medico-legal cases. To overcome this dilemma, phosphatidylethanol (PEth) might be a promising marker, because blood PEth is only positive following significant alcohol use. The aim of our study was therefore to employ PEth as a marker to differentiate between the different conditions.


Subjects included were 252 participants in monitoring with the Alabama Physician Health Program. All subjects testing positive for EtG and/or ethyl sulfate (EtS) who denied drinking after routine supportive confrontation were subject to information about PEth testing. If they still denied drinking, PEth testing was performed and the result communicated. EtG, EtS, and PEth testing was performed in a commercial laboratory using liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry methods.


Of a total of 18 subjects who tested positive for EtG and/or EtS, 10 denied drinking. Of the 7 who denied drinking after PEth explanation, in 5 cases, their claim was supported by a negative PEth result. In 2 cases, a positive PEth result was in contrast to their claim.


PEth results in combination with previous low positive EtG/EtS results allow differentiating between innocent/extraneous exposure and drinking. Negative PEth testing following low positive EtG/EtS results helps to further elucidate the findings and support the claim of the patient of recent alcohol abstinence. Positive PEth testing following positive EtG/EtS results confirms recent drinking.