Assessment of prenatal exposure to ethanol by meconium analysis: results of an Italian multicenter study

Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2012 Mar;36(3):417-24. doi: 10.1111/j.1530-0277.2011.01647.x. Epub 2011 Dec 14.


Background: This study estimated in 7 Italian cities the prevalence of prenatal exposure to ethanol by determining fatty acid ethyl esters (FAEEs; palmitic, palmitoleic, stearic, oleic, linoleic, linolenic, and arachidonic esters) and ethyl glucuronide (EtG) in neonatal meconium samples.

Methods: A total of 607 meconium samples were obtained from neonatal wards of 7 public hospitals: Verona and San Daniele del Friuli in the northeast of the country, Reggio Emilia in the middle east, Florence and Rome in the center, and Naples and Crotone in the southwest of the peninsula. Meconium biomarkers were assessed by a validated methodology using liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry and the results categorized using the accepted cutoff of 2 nmol/g total amount of 7 FAEEs and 2 nmol/g EtG, to differentiate between heavy maternal ethanol use during pregnancy and occasional or no use at all.

Results: On the basis of the above-reported cutoffs, the overall prevalence of newborns prenatally exposed to maternal ethanol was 7.9%: 0% in Verona, 4.0% in San Daniele del Friuli, 4.9% in Naples, 5.0% in Florence, 6.2% in Crotone, up to 10.6% in Reggio Emilia, and 29.4% in Rome. Low maternal education level and younger maternal age were associated with biomarker scores over the cutoff. There was also a significant correlation between the highest percentage of prenatal exposure in the capital and certain maternal sociodemographic characteristics.

Conclusions: These results indicate considerable variability in the prevalence of fetal exposure to ethanol in different Italian cities, as determined by the objective measurement of biomarkers in meconium. These data, together with previous ones obtained in Barcelona, Spain, indicate that gestational ethanol exposure is widespread, at least in parts of Europe.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Alcohol Drinking / epidemiology*
  • Alcohol Drinking / metabolism
  • Biomarkers / analysis
  • Esters / analysis
  • Ethanol / analysis*
  • Fatty Acids / analysis
  • Female
  • Glucuronates / analysis
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Italy / epidemiology
  • Male
  • Meconium / chemistry*
  • Pregnancy
  • Prevalence
  • Substance Abuse Detection / methods*
  • Substance Abuse Detection / statistics & numerical data


  • Biomarkers
  • Esters
  • Fatty Acids
  • Glucuronates
  • ethyl glucuronide
  • Ethanol