Background: Fetal alcohol disorders are preventable, but self-reported alcohol consumption can be misleading and impede effective treatment. Biomarkers represent an alternative method for assessing alcohol use, and this study evaluated the relationship between blood phosphatidylethanol (PEth) and alcohol use in a sample of reproductive age women.
Methods: Alcohol use was estimated by validated self-report methods in 80 nonpregnant women ages 18 to 35. PEth was measured by a contracted laboratory using a liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry assay. Regression methods appropriate for the distribution of PEth were used to define its relationship to alcohol consumption during the prior 2 weeks and explore the effects of drinking patterns on this association. Receiver operating characteristic analysis was used to estimate the sensitivity of PEth for various drinking levels at 95% specific cutoffs.
Results: PEth had a positive linear association with grams of alcohol consumed (p < 0.001), and was detectable in 93% of subjects consuming an average of 2 or more drinks per day. The relationship between total alcohol consumption and PEth may be stronger in women with recent heavy drinking days. The relationship between drinking and PEth varied considerably between individuals, and sensitivity for a certain amount of drinking was low at a highly specific cutoff concentration.
Conclusions: PEth is a highly sensitive indicator of moderate and heavy alcohol consumption in reproductive age women and may complement the use of self-report alcohol screens when additional objective markers of alcohol use are desirable. However, choosing a highly valid cutoff concentration for PEth to differentiate various levels of alcohol consumption may not be feasible.