Been drinking? The answer may be in your fingernails.

Lisa Berger and Michael Fendrich led a UWM-based study on the use of fingernail and hair clippings to determine alcohol consumption. (Photo by Troye Fox)
Lisa Berger and Michael Fendrich led a UWM-based study on the use of fingernail and hair clippings to determine alcohol consumption. (Photo by Troye Fox)

UWM researchers recently spent 16 weeks trimming the hair and fingernails of more than 600 college students to find out if they had consumed any alcohol – and how much – in the previous 90 days.

Turns out nail clippings may be better than hair in answering those questions. Also, a lot of college students drink.

Michael Fendrich and Lisa Berger of the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare (HBSSW) oversaw the collection as part of a research project on the effectiveness of using hair and nails as biomarkers to test for alcohol use in sensitive treatment situations. The testing was designed to find evidence of ethyl glucuronide (EtG), a direct alcohol biomarker.

The project was a joint effort between the school and United States Drug Testing Laboratories (USDTL) in Des Plaines, Ill. It was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

“USDTL asked if we could work on this research with them,” said Fendrich, Wisconsin Distinguished Professor of social work. “It’s a great example of collaboration between UWM and industry. In fact, chemists, social workers and psychologists need to work more closely like this more often.”

Fendrich said USDTL, which offers tools to measure and evaluate exposure to alcohol, drugs and toxins, was seeking research on accurate screening information regarding drug and alcohol use.

“The study led directly to the implementation of our fingernail ethyl glucuronide test that we now offer as part of our package of forensic testing services,” said Douglas Lewis, president of USDTL.

Fendrich and Berger, associate professor of social work, helped to devise and implement the study, which was conducted at a college campus that remains unnamed for privacy reasons of privacy.

Daniel Fuhrmann, of HBSSW’s Center for Applied and Behavioral Health Research, and Jennifer Hernandez-Meier, a former doctoral student, assisted them.

Because of sound study procedures, privacy was of little concern to the students who volunteered to have their hair and nails confidentially tested, and they answered a detailed questionnaire on their drinking history for the 90 days prior to the clippings.

“We needed accurate self-reporting by the students to make the research as useful as possible,” Berger said.

A recent report by Fendrich and Berger in a leading addiction journal underscored how these biomarkers matched up with recent reports of heavy drinking. The two UWM professors, along with other members of their research team, continue to explore data obtained from this study relating to alcohol reporting behavior, family alcohol risk and the relationships between heavy alcohol use and other risk behaviors.

The report was co-authored by UWM’s Fuhrmann, and by Charles Plate, Joseph Jones and Lewis, all of USDTL.

“This unique collaboration with private industry produced a very rich data set that promises to further our understanding of alcohol use and related behaviors,” Fendrich said.

To help jog their memories, students were provided with memorable dates within the 90-day timeline, such as Independence Day and local music concerts.

Researchers were also armed with information on how much alcohol typically is used in the drinks the students reported consuming (the alcohol content of beer generally starts at 4.6 percent and may bubble up to nine or 10 percent).

The intent was to provide a study of a more general population instead of a clinical study, which would have had more select participants.

Biological measures are not the only way to determine alcohol use, Berger said, and should be considered an “assistive tool” at this point.

Testing done in a USDTL laboratory indicated that nails provided a more sensitive reading of alcohol consumption (and also captured more of what the researchers classified as “high-risk” behavior) than did hair.

The study looked at students in three categories and found “a few non-imbibers,” “lots of increasing-risk users” and some “high-risk users” – according to the researchers. High-risk users were defined as consuming 30 or more standard drinks on average each week during a 12-week period.

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