Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders May Be Shockingly Common, Study Suggests

By Beth Leipholtz 02/09/18

New research explored whether the number of Americans with FASDs have long been underestimated.

pregnant woman drinking wine

A new study has revealed that the number of children affected by alcohol while in the womb is even higher than initially thought.

According to CNN, the study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), claims that up to one in 20 children in the U.S. suffers from fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs)—and that’s the conservative estimate. CNN reported that a different approach in the study states that number could actually be as high as one in 10.

When alcohol consumed by a mother during pregnancy affects a child, that child can develop fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, such conditions can cause abnormal facial features, a small head size, low body weight, behavioral issues, poor memory, vision and hearing issues and more.

For the study, experts were sent to public and private schools in the U.S. covering four areas: the Midwest, the Rocky Mountains, the southeast and the pacific southwest.  

At the schools, they tested more than 6,000 first-grade children for cognitive and behavioral problems, interviewed mothers about alcohol use and analyzed children’s growth and facial features. Of the thousands of children involved in the study, 222 were categorized as having fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Only two of those 222 had previously been diagnosed.

"We have long thought and believed that estimates that we had previously in the U.S. were pretty gross underestimates," Christina Chambers, a study author and a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, told CNN. "It's not an easy disorder to recognize."

Not all students' families chose to participate. According to Chambers and her colleagues, about 40% opted out of the study.

“Based on their findings, the authors determined that FASD affected between 11 and 50 out of every 1,000 children they examined,” a TIME article stated. “That translates to between 1.1 and 5%, which they say is a conservative estimate: It assumes that no additional FASD cases would be found in children in those communities that hadn’t participated in the study.”

Some experts in the field, according to CNN, disagree with the study’s results. Most experts lean toward the “commonly accepted estimate” of one in 100.

One such expert is Susan Astley, who serves as director of the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Diagnostic and Prevention Network at the University of Washington. Her concern is that the study both over- and underestimates the prevalence of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, and she feels more research is needed.

"I don't have a very high regard for the numbers," she said. "I'm very disappointed to see this featured in the likes of JAMA."

Because there is no definitive type of testing for fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, the study’s authors state, “It's impossible to know what proportion of these deficits were caused by fetal alcohol exposure.”

Still, Chambers says, the ideal outcome is that this study makes FASDs a more immediate concern.

"Our hope that what this will do is raise this to the level on the national agenda where we think it should be," Chambers told CNN.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at www.lifetobecontinued.com, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.