The reliability of biomarkers in hair for alcohol abuse

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  • Published: Apr 25, 2014
  • Author: Steve Down
  • Channels: Chemometrics & Informatics / Infrared Spectroscopy / UV/Vis Spectroscopy / Base Peak / X-ray Spectrometry / Raman / Atomic / MRI Spectroscopy / Proteomics / NMR Knowledge Base

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Reliable markers of long-term alcohol abuse are important in clinical and forensic contexts and two that can be measured in hair have come under scrutiny in recent years. Ethyl glucuronide (EG), which is formed from ethanol in the liver, is detected in blood and urine and transported to the hair by sweat, where it accumulates along the hair shaft. In addition, a series of ethyl esters of fatty acids (FAEE) are produced in the blood and tissue and travel to the hair via sebum, where they also build up.

It has been proposed that EG and FAEE should both be measured to confirm chronic alcohol abuse or abstinence, but a number of projects have shown that a positive result for EG does not always coincide with a positive result for FAEE, specifically the ethyl esters of myristic, palmitic, oleic and stearic acid. As a result, the Society of Hair Testing has recommended that hair testing for alcohol markers should not be carried out in isolation.

New results by a team of scientists in Europe that appeared in Forensic Science International appear to confirm this. Pascal Kintz from X-Pertise Consulting and David Nicholson from DNA Worldwide Group analysed 97 hair samples given by solicitors to see if there were any signs of historical alcohol abuse. They used LC/MS and GC/MS methods for EG and FAEE, respectively, which were measured at the same time.

The EG and FAEE results agreed for just 68% of the cases, with both either positive or negative. In another 27.8% of cases, EG was negative and FAEE positive. Hair lotions that contain ethanol could be responsible for the increased levels of FAEE but frequent hair washing and bleaching is also known to remove EG over time.

There were also 4.1% cases where EG was positive and FAEE negative and this was attributed to the use of herbal lotions prepared from ethanolic extracts of plants that contained EG and skewed the results.

Problems with hair products or treatments can be circumvented by analysing body hair but the overriding conclusion supports that the SoHT recommendation that hair analysis should be supported by other investigations such as blood tests or clinical evaluation.


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