Archive for the 'Breathalyzers' Category

Can Diets Cause Higher Breathalyzer Readings?

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

I’ve written in the past about how most so-called "breathalyzers" do not measure alcohol:  they actually measure the presence of the methyl group in chemical compounds.  One of those compounds is ethyl alcohol (aka ethanol), and the machine simply assumes that the detected compound is ethyl alcohol. 

Problem:  there are thousands of compounds containing the methyl group — of which over one hundred have been found on the human breath.  Breathing gasoline or paint fumes, for example, or merely absorbing the fumes through the skin, can create false breath test results for days afterwards.  And I’ve posted that the problem is particularly acute when the suspect happens to be a diabetic, as diabetics often have high levels of acetone in their breath — a compound which contains the methyl group. 

However, you don’t have to be a diabetic to have high levels of acetone:  scientific research has established that acetone can exist in perfectly normal individuals at  levels sufficient to cause false high breath-alcohol test readings.  See "Excretion of Low-Molecular Weight Volatile Substances in Human Breath:  Focus on Endogenous Ethanol", 9  Journal of Analytical Toxicology 246 (1985). 

Fasting or radical dieting, such as with the Atkins diet, can also cause significantly elevated acetone.  Studies have concluded that fasting can increase acetone in the body sufficient to obtain breathalyzer readings of .06% (this is cumulative — that is, the .06% will be added by the machine to any levels actually caused by alcohol or other compounds).   See "The Likelihood of Acetone Interference in Breath Alcohol Measurement", 3  Alcohol, Drugs and Driving 1 (1987).  And low-carbohydrate diets, such as Atkins, have long been associated with high levels of acetone production.

Of course, for many years law enforcement denied that any such problem existed, just as they denied that mouth alcohol and radio frequency interference caused false test results — until manufacturers started adding acetone detectors, mouth alcohol detectors and RFI detectors to their machines (none of which, unfortunately, have proven effective.) 

How reliable are breathalyzers?  "Close enough for government work".  As I’ve posted, there seems to be a growing trend toward using blood rather breath analysis, including in some states letting officers draw the blood themselves (in at least two states, at the scene of arrest).  Given the reassurances about these machines so often expressed publicly by law enforcement, one has to wonder why they are increasingly turning to the involved process of hypodermic needles, preservatives, anticoagulents, refrigeration and delayed laboratory analysis….
 

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Alcohol Intoxication and Race

Friday, February 21st, 2014

As I have said in previous posts, the single greatest flaw in breathalyzers is that they are designed to assume that all humans are the same. You and I are physiologically different, and I am different at this moment from what I will be in an hour. The ratio of alcohol measured on the breath to the amount in the blood, for example, varies widely from time to time and from person to person. Our bodies metabolize alcohol — absorb and eliminate it — at different rates; among other things, this confounds attempts to estimate blood alcohol levels when driving based upon breath/blood tests an hour later.

Further, each of us has a different physiological response — tolerance — to alcohol. An example of this human diversity can be seen in racial differences toward alcohol. The body of scientific literature seems to clearly indicate a racial — i.e., genetic — difference in the metabolism and effects of alcohol. Studies, for example, have found that American Indians metabolize alcohol more than twice as fast as Caucasians. Bennion and Li, "Alcohol Metabolism in American Indians and Whites", 294 New England Journal of Medicine 9 (1976); Holzbacher, "Elimination of Ethanol in Humans", 17 Canadian Society of Forensic Science Journal 182 (1984); Fenna et al., "Ethanol Metabolism in Various Racial Groups", 105 Canadian Medical Association Journal 472 (1971).

The following excerpt is from one of the books I wrote while teaching at a law school some years ago. Entitled Born to Crime (Greenwood Press: London, 1984), it dealt with the sensitive subject of genetic predisposition toward criminal behavior. One chapter addressed the causes of alcoholism:

…This ethnic approach was first used in 1972 in a study of the comparative effects of alcohol on men and women in Japan, Taiwan, Korea and the United States. Wolff, "Ethnic Differences in Alcohol Sensitivity", 175 Science 449 (1972). Interested by the lower rate of alcoholism among Asians, an American physician selected 38 Japanese, 24 Taiwanese, 20 Koreans and 34 Americans as subjects (all between the ages of 25 and 35). He fed each subject measured amounts of beer, with Americans (that is, Caucasians) receiving more than twice as much per pound of body wieght as the Asians. He then measured the body’s reaction to the alcohol by recording the flushing of the earlobe with an optical densitometer, as well as increases in pulse pressure.If there were no genetic differences in reactions to alcohol, the physician could expect to find that flushing (an indication of vessel dilation) and pulse pressure — both under the control of the autonomic nervous system — would be consistent among the various ethnic groups.

The results, however, clearly indicated a genetic factor in the reaction to alcohol. Fully 83 percent of the Asian subjects responded to the measured amounts of alcohol with a marked flush, but only 6 percent of the Caucasians did, despite the latter having received larger doses. Similarly, increases in pulse pressures were observed in 74 percent of the Asians, with only 3 percent (one adult) of the Caucasians demonstrating such a reaction. To insure against any possble cultural differences on alcohol consumption, the physician next duplicated the experiment with Japanese, Taiwanese and American infants, giving them small amounts of port wine in a glucose solution. Again, the results showed that heredity rather than environment dictated the body’s automatic reaction to alcohol: Of the Asian babies, 74 percent responded with flushing, but of the Caucasian babies, only 5 per cent (one baby) so reacted. Clearly, the alcohol-induced changes in blood flow were not learned or conditioned responses….

These experiments were repeated by a team of scientists two years later, this time with 24 Chinese and 24 European subjects. Ewing et al., "Alcohol Sensitivity and Ethnic Background", 131 American Journal of Psychiatry 206 (1974). The results proved to be the same: Skin flushing, increased heart rate and decreased blood pressure in response to alcohol were much more noticeable among the Chinese. The scientists concluded that physiological rather than cultural factors determined the relatively low rate of alcoholism in Asians….

Humans are a diverse group. Each of us, thankfully, is unique. And it is this uniqueness and variability which will always render unreliable the use of machines to estimate blood alcohol levels or degrees of intoxication by measuring breath, and the use of mathematical formulas and legal presumptions based upon uniform metabolism to estimate earlier levels when driving. Note: In most states, the law presumes that (1) a person with .08% blood-alcohol level is under the influence, and (2) the blood-alcohol level when tested is the same as when driving (up to 2 or 3 hours, depending upon the state).

But then, as Dickens wrote long ago, "The law is a ass".
 

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Can Dieting Cause False Breathalyzer Readings?

Monday, February 17th, 2014

I’ve written in the past about how most so-called "breathalyzers" do not measure alcohol:  they actually measure the presence of the methyl group in chemical compounds.  One of those compounds is ethyl alcohol (aka ethanol), and the machine simply assumes that the detected compound is ethyl alcohol. 

Problem:  there are thousands of compounds containing the methyl group — of which over one hundred have been found on the human breath.  Breathing gasoline or paint fumes, for example, or merely absorbing the fumes through the skin, can create false breath test results for days afterwards.  And I’ve posted that the problem is particularly acute when the suspect happens to be a diabetic, as diabetics often have high levels of acetone in their breath — a compound which contains the methyl group. 

However, you don’t have to be a diabetic to have high levels of acetone:  scientific research has established that acetone can exist in perfectly normal individuals at  levels sufficient to cause false high breath-alcohol test readings.  See "Excretion of Low-Molecular Weight Volatile Substances in Human Breath:  Focus on Endogenous Ethanol", 9 Journal of Analytical Toxicology 246 (1985). 

Fasting or radical dieting, such as with the Atkins diet, can also cause significantly elevated acetone.  Studies have concluded that fasting can increase acetone in the body sufficient to obtain breathalyzer readings of .06% (this is cumulative — that is, the .06% will be added by the machine to any levels actually caused by alcohol or other compounds).   See "The Likelihood of Acetone Interference in Breath Alcohol Measurement", 3  Alcohol, Drugs and Driving 1 (1987).  And low-carbohydrate diets, such as Atkins, have long been associated with high levels of acetone production.

Of course, for many years law enforcement denied that any such problem existed, just as they denied that mouth alcohol and radio frequency interference caused false test results — until manufacturers started adding acetone detectors, mouth alcohol detectors and RFI detectors to their machines (none of which, unfortunately, have proven reliable.) 

How reliable are breathalyzers?  "Close enough for government work".  As I’ve posted, there seems to be a growing trend toward letting officers draw blood themselves at the scene of arrest.  Given the reassurances about these machines so often expressed publicly by law enforcement, one has to wonder why they are increasingly turning to the involved process of hypodermic needles, preservatives, anticoagulents, refrigeration and delayed laboratory analysis….
 

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High Breath Alcohol?…or Just Pumping Gasoline?

Monday, January 27th, 2014

Folks who have read my post, "Why Breathalyzers Don’t Measure Alcohol", seem quite surprised to find out these DUI machines are not as reliable as MADD and law enforcement agencies would have us believe. In fact, the manufacturers of some of these machines have refused in the past to even warrant them to do what they’re supposed to: accurately measure blood-alcohol levels (see my earlier post, "Breathalyzers: Why Aren’t They Warranted to Measure Alcohol?")

So how reliable are these "breathalyzers" that determine a person’s guilt or innocence in DUI cases? And just what do they measure?

Well, thousands of different chemical compounds, according to scientists. Gasoline for one. Consider an article appearing on the front page of the Spokane Spokesman-Review in which a person sitting in jail awaiting trial for DUI claimed that he had nothing to drink. He said he had run out of gas and had been siphoning gasoline from a container into his tank before being stopped by the officer and arrested. In siphoning, he had sucked on the hose to get it started and accidentally swallowed a small amount of the gasoline. He claimed that this must have caused the later high breathalyzer reading. The individual finally talked the sheriff into a demonstration to prove his story.

Taken from his cell after one week of incarceration, he swallowed a cup of unleaded gasoline and then blew into the breath machine — in this case, an Intoximeter 3000. The results? After 5 minutes, the reading was .00%…..after 10 minutes, .04%……after 20 minutes, the Intoximeter registered .31%…..and after one hour, the reading was .28%. Even after three hours, the person still blew a .24% on the machine — three times the legal limit! (A quick call from the sheriff to a local gasoline distributor confirmed that gasoline contains no alcohol.)

This was not a freak occurrence. The results have been scientifically verified in a study conducted by CMI, Inc., the manufacturer of a competing breath machine, the Intoxilyzer 5000, and reported in 8(3) Drinking/Driving Law Letter 6. The CMI technicians mixed a simulator solution of 800 micrograms of gasoline with 500 milliliters of distilled water, then introduced it into their machine. The solution produced readings of .619%, .631% and .635% — or about eight times the legal limit for "alcohol" levels.

You don’t have to drink gasoline to get a reading on the breathalyzer. Breathing the fumes will do it. Or even absorbing fumes through the skin.  Like at a gasoline pump.
 

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Breath Testing Alcoholics — and “Catch-22″

Friday, January 3rd, 2014

It may not surprise you to find out that alcoholics arrested for DUI will generally have higher blood-alcohol readings. It may surprise you, however, to learn that alcoholics will often have higher blood-alcohol readings because they are alcoholics – not because they  have higher levels of alcohol.

That’s right. It’s because the physiology of alcoholics is different in some important respects.

One of those is that their bodies produce more acetaldehyde — far more. Acetaldehyde? That’s a compound produced in the liver in small amounts as a by-product in the metabolism of alcohol. Unfortunately, alcohol in the lungs has been found to metabolize there as well as in the liver — and to produce acetaldehyde there.

The amount of acetaldehyde produced in the lungs (to then be breathed into the breathalyzer) varies from person to person. "Origin of Breath Acetaldehyde During Ethanol Oxidation: Effect of Long-Term Cigarette Smoking", 100 Journal of Laboratory Clinical Medicine 908. But in a study focusing on alcoholics, researchers discovered that the amount of acetaldehyde in the breath and blood of alcoholics was 5 to 55 times higher than that in nonalcoholics. "Elevated Blood Acetaldehyde in Alcoholics and Accelerated Ethanol Elimination", 13 (Supp 1) Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior 119.

End result: since breathalyzers can’t tell the difference between alcohol and acetaldehyde (see earlier post, "Why Breathalyzers Don’t Measure Alcohol"), alcoholics will usually have falsely higher blood-alcohol readings.
 

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