• Testing Hair for Alcohol Consumption - Chromatography Can Help

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Testing Hair for Alcohol Consumption - Chromatography Can Help

Feb 28 2019

There are many reasons for wanting to know if someone has been drinking alcohol. Patients on treatment programs, liver transplant patients, monitoring programs for pilots or doctors - or many other reasons for requiring alcohol abstinence. You could just ask someone, but unfortunately, that does not mean you will get an accurate assessment - especially if the drinking was several days or even weeks ago.

If they are driving, a simple breathalyser test at the roadside is all that is needed - although that is followed up by a blood alcohol test. But what if you wanted to know if the person had been drinking several weeks ago? Well, urine tests can detect alcohol for a few days, and blood tests reveal alcohol for a few weeks. But if you want to know a person’s history over the past few months then hair analysis is where you need to go.

Knowing your EtG and FAEE metabolites

Metabolites are the end-products of biological reactions. Metabolites can be used as biomarkers to indicate what reactions have been taking place in the body. When we drink alcohol, as well as producing interesting behavioural changes, our body also produces metabolites due to the breakdown of ethanol by the body. And as metabolites travel around our bloodstream, some metabolites can find a home where they can reveal old reactions.

When we consume alcohol, the body produces many different metabolites - and two of them are taken up as our hair grows locking in evidence of our past. Ethyl Glucuronide (EtG) and free fatty acid esters (FAEE) are two metabolites produced when we drink alcohol. These two metabolites can be tested for in urine and blood - but they can also get locked into our hair as it grows. And that means your secret drinking is no longer secret - for up to six months at least.

Testing hair for metabolites

The biomarkers are absorbed into the hair through sweat and by diffusion. They are found along the entire length of hair, which means the tests cannot be used to discover exactly when someone has had a drink, only that they have consumed alcohol. It doesn’t have to be the hair on your head either - underarm, body and pubic hair can all be used for alcohol testing. Usually a few hundred strands are used, the longer the sample the further back in time you can look.

Chromatography is one of the main techniques used for analysis of alcohol biomarkers in hair samples. The use of different types of chromatography in analysis of metabolites is widespread - with electrophoresis discussed in the article Capillary Electrophoresis-Mass Spectrometry for Micro-Metabolomics.

So, raise a glass to chromatography next time you’re having a hair cut as you cut away at your personal history.

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