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Margie Duncan holding fingernail clippings

Margie Duncan, clinical supervisor for Journey Mental Health Center's clinical assessment program, shows how fingernail clippings are collected to test whether repeat drunken drivers are still drinking. Journey started using fingernails instead of blood for the testing in February.

Journey Mental Health Center, which tests repeat drunken drivers in Dane County to see if they are still consuming alcohol, has started using a new kind of test — of fingernails, instead of blood.

Drunken drivers convicted three times or more undergo assessments and treatment for a year, during which they are tested at least three times to see if they have been drinking.

In February, Journey switched the testing method from blood to fingernail clippings. Both tests reveal only heavy drinking, but the chemical deposited by alcohol that is detected through testing stays longer in fingernails than in blood, said Pamela Bean, a consultant in Madison who oversees the program.

“Fingernails give you a window of detection that goes back three months,” Bean said. “Blood gives you a window of two to three weeks.”

Also, Journey can collect the fingernail clippings. Previously, it sent people to St. Mary’s Hospital for blood testing, which may have reduced compliance, Bean said.

Since February, Journey has required participants pay the $150 cost of each test. That is because a state grant that supported the program since 2012 ends this year, Bean said.

About 300 people are expected to be tested in Dane County this year, she said.

Kenosha County, which also uses fingernails for alcohol testing, tests for other drugs in drivers for whom there is a suspicion of using other drugs, such as marijuana, opioids and cocaine. Dane County is considering doing such testing, Bean said.

Hair can used for alcohol testing, but chemical treatment of hair destroys the chemical detected, so hair testing is not preferred, she said. Nail polish doesn’t destroy the chemical, but it must be removed before fingernail testing.

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David Wahlberg is the health and medicine reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.