Foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is the name given to a group of birth defects that is the direct result of a woman's drinking alcohol during pregnancy. It is the leading known cause of mental retardation. FAS manifests as a series of mental and physical birth defects that can include mental retardation, growth deficiencies, central nervous system dysfunction, craniofacial abnormalities and behavioral maladjustments. Foetal alcohol effect (FAE) is a less severe set of the same symptoms. FAS/FAE produces irreversible physical, mental and emotional effects. Behavioural and mental problems of FAE children can be just as severe as those of FAS children. Many children with FAS/FAE are not able to understand cause and effect relationships and long-term consequences.
In the USA, at least 5,000 infants are born each year with FAS, or approximately one out of every 750 live births. Thirty to forty percent of babies whose mothers drink heavily throughout pregnancy have the syndrome. FAS/FAE is a problem found in all races and socio-economic groups. FAS and FAE are widely under diagnosed. Some experts believe between one third and two-thirds of all children in special education have been affected by alcohol in some way. The institutional and medical costs for one child with FAS are $1.4 million over a lifetime. Of a study group of 61 FAS and FAE adults, 86% had experience neglect, 52% abuse, 80% has "attention deficits", that is they could not concentrate on a single task for an extended period of time; 73% had memory problems, 72% had been classified as hyperactive. 95% could not handle money on their own and none were financially self-supporting. Ordinary duties like taking care of their own health, their own clothes, saving money, and making purchase independently were accomplished only four. Only half were able to care for their hygienic needs.
There are an estimated 70,000 foetal alcohol-impaired children born each year in the USA. Of these approximately 7,500 are clinically FAS, with mean birth weight around 5 lbs and 34% premature. Alaska has the highest incidence and certain portions of the state record the highest FAS rate among any population in the world. In 1985, the USA National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism spent $2.9 million on FAS research. This is less than 1% of the conservative estimate of the social costs of FAS.