HUNTINGTON — Approximately 8% of newborns are exposed to alcohol just two to four weeks before birth, according to a West Virginia University study published last month in the Pediatric Research journal.

The study looked at 1,729 newborns whose blood was analyzed for the prevalence of phosphatidylethanol, or PETH, a byproduct of metabolizing alcohol. Researchers then matched the PETH levels with data from Project WATCH, which collects demographic information and health statistics for every infant born in West Virginia.

The team discovered that on average 8% of births involved PETH levels consistent with late-pregnancy alcohol use. The prevalence varied across the state, from 2.3% in the Eastern Panhandle to 17.1% in and around the Mid-Ohio Valley.

In Cabell County, which was part of Region 5 identified in the study, PETH levels consistent with late-pregnancy alcohol use were found in 6.4% of newborns. The region also included Mason, Putnam, Kanawha, Lincoln, Boone, Wayne, Logan and Mingo counties.

“Alcohol exposure during the last trimester is associated with a range of developmental problems that may not be overtly expressed as craniofacial deformities, but when these children go to school, you see that there are learning, cognitive, behavioral and so many other deficits — from memory to communicating, socializing and performing daily life skills,” said Amna Umer, a research assistant professor in the West Virginia University School of Medicine.

The study also found that prenatal alcohol exposure is associated with maternal smoking during pregnancy. Also, babies exposed to alcohol prenatally were more likely to be born premature, which is less than 37 weeks, and have a low birth weight of less than 2,000 grams.

As part of Project WATCH, all West Virginia birth hospitals use the Birth Score tool to gather data on newborns’ exposure to substances in utero. These substances include cannabinoids, tobacco, stimulants and opioids.

According to researchers, the actual prevalence of drinking during pregnancy may be much higher.

“The PETH test won’t pick up just one glass of wine or one beer,” said Stefan Maxwell, a neonatologist with Charleston Area Medical Center. “It’s sensitive only for what we call binge drinking, which would be three or four regular drinks in a day.”

PETH testing still has an advantage over other prenatal alcohol exposure detection methods because it can detect the presence of alcohol weeks after use, researchers said. A regular blood test for the presence of alcohol may only produce valid results within a day of the alcohol exposure.

The study was published Jan. 3 in Pediatric Research, a monthly peer-reviewed medical journal.

Travis Crum is a reporter for HD Media. He may be reached by phone at 304-526-2801.