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Fingernail Clippings and Blood Samples are Being Used to Help Treat Repeat Drunken Drivers


Wisconsin’s drinking culture sometimes leads to tragedies on the road — when impaired drivers get behind the wheel.

A handful of counties have been using a relatively-new method of identifying high-risk drinkers and steering them toward treatment.

The preferred ways of checking people for drug and alcohol use over the years have been blood and urine tests. But since 2006, Doctor Pamela Bean has been encouraging the use of biomarkers. They’re detected in fingernail clippings and blood samples.

“The direct Biomarkers are metabolites of alcohol. So in other words when you ingest alcohol, part of the alcohol gets metabolized in different parts of the body. In nails, in hair or in a drop of blood,” Bean says.

Bean says while traditional blood-alcohol tests indicate the level of alcohol in the body at the time, the biomarkers detect alcohol consumption over weeks or months. So the results show whether a person continues to drink heavily.

“If you consume too much alcohol, these alcohol biomarkers are going to become elevated and if you stop drinking alcohol then these biomarkers are going to normalize over time,” Bean says.

Bean founded The Biomarker Project and is principal of Millennium Strategies. The company helps clinics implement biomarker testing.

Kenosha County is one of six in Wisconsin that use the procedure. The agency there that conducts the tests is Hope Counsel on Alcohol and other Drug Abuse. Guida Brown is executive director. She says the biomarker screening helps paint the picture.

“People who are addicted don’t have a sense of how much they’re drinking, they don’t have a sense that their drinking is going to get out of control. And so they think oh, I’ll just have one or two drinks and end up getting smashed all the time or a majority of the time. And so the test really helps them to understand that their drinking is out of control,” Brown says.

Then professionals can tailor interventions to address the individual’s drinking problem or addiction.

“We realize that telling people that they can’t drink and use other drugs during their driver’s safety plan was really just taking their word for it. And addiction is a cunning, baffling disease and that’s not a very good way of making sure that people are remaining abstinent,” Brown says.

One barrier to using alcohol biomarkers more widely is the cost. Brown says each runs around $100.

Doctor Pamela Bean of The Biomarker Project says, as more communities begin using the procedure, the cost will come down. As for the effectiveness of the biomarker program in deterring intoxicated driving, she says fewer than half of participants reoffend. 

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.
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