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Study on light drinking while pregnant "flawed and dangerous," say Utah health officials
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Utah health officials are calling new research on light drinking "flawed and dangerous," saying it sends the wrong message about alcohol use during pregnancy.

Last month, a study that appeared in the London-based Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health suggested drinking one or two units of alcohol, once or twice a week, during pregnancy does not raise the risk of developmental problems in a child.

The findings have quickly circulated, leading Utah health officials to denounce them as misleading. They are in "direct opposition to reams of research by several reputable organizations and pose a danger to mothers and babies everywhere," said Utah Pregnancy Risk Line program manager Julia Robertson in a prepared statement.

The phone line is a free service that educates women and doctors about the effects of exposure to drugs, alcohol and other toxins during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Operators report no sudden increase in calls.

But Robertson worries about "mixed messages" and urges pregnant women, and those trying to conceive, to avoid alcohol.

When an expectant mother consumes alcohol, it passes through the placenta directly to the baby, which is less able to metabolize it.

There is ample, strong evidence linking heavy drinking to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and other developmental impairments. The British study, in fact, found increased rates of hyperactivity and other behavioral and emotional problems among the children of heavy drinkers.

It is not the first, however, to question conventional wisdom on the risks of light drinking.

Researchers at University College London and three other universities used data from a national study tracking the health of more than 11,000 children in the U.K. born between September 2000 and January 2002. Mothers were asked about their drinking habits nine months after having delivered and were divided into five groups: teetotalers; nondrinkers who abstained during pregnancy; light drinkers who consumed one or two drinks on occasion while pregnant; moderate drinkers who imbibed three to six drinks a week; and heavy or binge drinkers who drank seven times a week or six on a single occasion.

The children were cognitively tested at age 3 and 5. The study's lead author, epidemiologist Yvonne Kelly told the BBC she hoped her findings help women make "better decisions."

But the U.S. Surgeon General maintains there is no safe amount of alcohol to consume while pregnant.

If it's difficult for scientists to determine the threshold for how much alcohol is OK, imagine how confusing it can be for mothers, said Robertson. "What does light or moderate mean to most people?"

She notes the study's authors acknowledge their work is prone to "recall bias," the inability of mothers to accurately recall and report their drinking habits.

In addition, women categorized as light drinkers were significantly wealthier and better educated than other women in the study, including those who didn't drink, which may have skewed the findings.

Another limitation, said Robertson, is that the authors focused only on the more global aspects of child development, and not more subtle impairments to academic, social and living skills. —

To learn more

For more information about the effects of alcohol on a fetus, call the Pregnancy Risk Line at 1-800-822-2229.

For a copy of the British study, go to http://press.psprings.co.uk/jech/october/jech103002.pdf.

Prenatal health • Official advice remains that pregnant women abstain from alcohol.
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