Archive for December 16th, 2004

Asthma Inhalers Cause High Breathalyzer Results

Thursday, December 16th, 2004

If you use asthma inhalers and are ever arrested for DUI, you should perhaps think twice about taking a breath test. Most inhalers operate primarily by injecting a mist containing a substantial quantity of alcohol into the lungs. As an example, one of the most commonly used inhalers, Primatene Mist, contains 34 percent alcohol. This alcohol does not pass into the blood stream, but remains in the alveolar lining of the lungs — from where it will be exhaled into the breath machine.

The problem is that "breathalyzers" are designed to assume that the breath sample contains alcohol which has been swallowed and then metabolized by the body before being diffused into the lungs. As I mentioned in an earlier post ("Breathalyzers — and Why They Don’t Work"), they are further designed to assume that there are 2100 units of alcohol in the blood for every unit measured on the breath. So the breathalyzer’s computer mistakenly multiplies the alcohol measured from the asthma inhaler 2100 times. In other words, a very tiny amount of alcohol in the lungs from the inhaler mist can have a very large effect on the machine’s reading.

Just to make things worse, scientists have found that some asthma inhalers can cause high readings on breath machines due, apparently, to the propellent gasses used in the aerosols, in particular, chlorofluorocarbons. See "Using Asthma Inhalers Can Give False Positive Results in Breath Tests", 324 British Medical Journal 756 (March, 2002). As I mentioned in another earlier post ("Why Breathalyzers Don’t Measure Alcohol"), one of the many design defects in breath machines is that they are non-specific — that is, they will falsely report thousands of different chemical compounds as being alcohol.

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