A breathalyzer (or breathalyser) is a device for estimating blood alcohol content (BAC) from a breath sample. Breathalyzer is the brand name of a series of models made by one manufacturer of breath alcohol testing instruments (originally Smith and Wesson, later sold to National Draeger), and is a registered trademark for such instruments. In Canada, a preliminary non-evidentiary screening device can be approved by Parliament as an approved screening device, and an evidentiary breath instrument can be similarly designated as an approved instrument. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration maintains a Conforming Products List of breath alcohol devices approved for evidentiary use, as well as for preliminary screening use.
A 1927 paper produced by Emil Bogen, who collected air in a football bladder and then tested this air for traces of alcohol, discovered that the alcohol content of 2 litres of expired air was a little greater than that of 1cc of urine. However, research into the possibilities of using breath to test for alcohol in a person’s body dates as far back as 1874, when Anstie made the observation that small amounts of alcohol were excreted in breath.
Also, in 1927 a Chicago, IL corner-chemists by the name of W.D. McNalley invented a breathalizer in which the breath moving through chemicals in water would change color. One interesting use for his invention was for house wives to test whether their husbands had been drinking before letting them in the house.
The first practical roadside breath-testing device intended for use by the police was the drunkometer. The drunkometer was developed by Professor Rolla H. Harger in 1938. The drunkometer collected a motorist’s breath sample directly into a balloon inside the machine. The breath sample was then pumped through an acidified potassium permanganate solution. If there was alcohol in the breath sample, the solution changed colour. The greater the colour change, the more alcohol there was present in the breath.
In late 1927, in a case in Marlborough, England, a Dr. Gorsky, Police Surgeon, asked a suspect to inflate a football bladder with his breath. Since the 2 liters of the man’s breath contained 1.5ml of ethanol, Dr. Gorsky testified before the court that the defendant was “50% drunk”. Though technologies for detecting alcohol vary, it is widely accepted that Dr. Robert Borkenstein (1912–2002), a captain with the Indiana State Police and later a professor at Indiana University at Bloomington, is regarded as the first to create a device that measures a subject’s blood alcohol level based on a breath sample. In 1954, Borkenstein invented his Breathalyzer, which used chemical oxidation and photometry to determine alcohol concentration. Subsequent breath analyzers have converted primarily to infrared spectroscopy. The invention of the Breathalyzer provided law enforcement with a non-invasive test providing immediate results to determine an individual’s breath alcohol concentration at the time of testing. Also, the breath alcohol concentration test result itself can vary between individuals consuming identical amounts of alcohol due to gender, weight, and genetic pre-disposition.
When the user exhales into a breath analyzer, any ethanol present in their breath is oxidized to acetic acid at the anode. The electrical current produced by this reaction is measured by a microprocessor, and displayed as an approximation of overall blood alcohol content (BAC) by the Alcosensor.
Breath analyzers do not directly measure blood alcohol content or concentration, which requires the analysis of a blood sample. Instead, they estimate BAC indirectly by measuring the amount of alcohol in one’s breath. Two breathalyzer technologies are most prevalent. Desktop analyzers generally use infrared spectrophotometer technology, electrochemical fuel cell technology, or a combination of the two. Hand-held field testing devices are generally based on electrochemical platinum fuel cell analysis and, depending upon jurisdiction, may be used by officers in the field as a form of “field sobriety test” commonly called PBT (preliminary breath test) or PAS (preliminary alcohol screening) or as evidential devices in POA (point of arrest) testing.
Breathalyzer: Common Sources of Error
Breath testers can be very sensitive to temperature, for example, and will give false readings if not adjusted or recalibrated to account for ambient or surrounding air temperatures. The temperature of the subject is also very important.
Breathing pattern can also significantly affect breath test results. One study found that the BAC readings of subjects decreased 11-14% after running up one flight of stairs and 22–25% after doing so twice. Another study found a 15% decrease in BAC readings after vigorous exercise or hyperventilation. Hyperventilation for 20 seconds has been shown to lower the reading by approximately 32%. On the other hand, holding one’s breath for 30 seconds can increase the breath test result by about 28%.
Some breath analysis machines assume a hematocrit (cell volume of blood) of 47%. However, hematocrit values range from 42 to 52% in men and from 37 to 47% in women. A person with a lower hematocrit will have a falsely high BAC reading.
Research indicates that breath tests can vary at least 15% from actual blood alcohol concentration. An estimated 23% of individuals tested will have a BAC reading higher than their true BAC. Police in Victoria, Australia, use breathalyzers that give a recognized 20% tolerance on readings. Noel Ashby, former Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner (Traffic & Transport), claims that this tolerance is to allow for different body types.
Many handheld breath analyzers sold to consumers use a silicon oxide sensor (also called a semiconductor sensor) to determine the blood alcohol concentration. These sensors are far more prone to contamination and interference from substances other than breath alcohol. The sensors require recalibration or replacement every six months. Higher end personal breath analyzers and professional-use breath alcohol testers use platinum fuel cell sensors. These too require recalibration but at less frequent intervals than semiconductor devices, usually once a year.
Calibration is the process of checking and adjusting the internal settings of a breath analyzer by comparing and adjusting its test results to a known alcohol standard. Law enforcement breath analyzers are meticulously maintained and re-calibrated frequently to ensure accuracy.
There are two methods of calibrating a precision fuel cell breath analyzer, the Wet Bath and the Dry Gas method. Each method requires specialized equipment and factory trained technicians. It is not a procedure that can be conducted by untrained users or without the proper equipment.
The Dry-Gas Method utilizes a portable calibration standard which is a precise mixture of alcohol and inert nitrogen available in a pressurized canister. Initial equipment costs are less than alternative methods and the steps required are fewer. The equipment is also portable allowing calibrations to be done when and where required.
The Wet Bath Method utilizes an alcohol/water standard in a precise specialized alcohol concentration, contained and delivered in specialized simulator equipment. Wet bath apparatus has a higher initial cost and is not intended to be portable. The standard must be fresh and replaced regularly.
Some semiconductor models are designed specifically to allow the sensor module to be replaced without the need to send the unit to a calibration lab.
One major problem with older breath analyzers is non-specificity: the machines not only identify the ethyl alcohol (or ethanol) found in alcoholic beverages, but also other substances similar in molecular structure or reactivity.
The oldest breath analyzer models pass breath through a solution of potassium dichromate, which oxidizes ethanol into acetic acid, changing color in the process. A monochromatic light beam is passed through this sample, and a detector records the change in intensity and, hence, the change in color, which is used to calculate the percent alcohol in the breath. However, since potassium dichromate is a strong oxidizer, numerous alcohol groups can be oxidized by it, producing false positives. This source of false positives is unlikely as very few other substances found in exhaled air are oxidizable.
Infrared-based breath analyzers project an infrared beam of radiation through the captured breath in the sample chamber and detect the absorbance of the compound as a function of the wavelength of the beam, producing an absorbance spectrum that can be used to identify the compound, as the absorbance is due to the harmonic vibration and stretching of specific bonds in the molecule at specific wavelengths. The characteristic bond of alcohols in infrared is the O-H bond, which gives a strong absorbance at a short wavelength. The more light is absorbed by compounds containing the alcohol group, the less reaches the detector on the other side—and the higher the reading. Other groups, most notably aromatic rings and carboxylic acids can give similar absorbance readings.
Some natural and volatile interfering compounds do exist, however. For example, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has found that dieters and diabetics may have acetone levels hundreds or even thousand of times higher than those in others. Acetone is one of the many substances that can be falsely identified as ethyl alcohol by some breath machines. However, fuel cell based systems are non-responsive to substances like acetone.
A study in Spain showed that metered-dose inhalers (MDIs) used in asthma treatment are also a cause of false positives in breath machines.
Substances in the environment can also lead to false BAC readings. For example, methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE), a common gasoline additive, has been alleged anecdotally to cause false positives in persons exposed to it. Tests have shown this to be true for older machines; however, newer machines detect this interference and compensate for it. Any number of other products found in the environment or workplace can also cause erroneous BAC results. These include compounds found in lacquer, paint remover, celluloid, gasoline, and cleaning fluids, especially ethers, alcohols, and other volatile compounds.
Breath analyzers assume that the subject being tested has a 2100-to-1 partition ratio in converting alcohol measured in the breath to estimates of alcohol in the blood. If the instrument estimates the BAC, then it measures weight of alcohol to volume of breath, so it will effectively measure grams of alcohol per 2100ml of breath given. This measure is in direct proportion to the amount of grams of alcohol to every 1ml of blood. Therefore, there is a 2100-to-1 ratio of alcohol in blood to alcohol in breath. However, this assumed partition ratio varies from 1300:1 to 3100:1 or wider among individuals and within a given individual over time. Assuming a true (and US legal) blood-alcohol concentration of .07%, for example, a person with a partition ratio of 1500:1 would have a breath test reading of .10%-over the legal limit.
Most individuals do, in fact, have a 2100-to-1 partition ratio in accordance with William Henry’s law, which states that when the water solution of a volatile compound is brought into equilibrium with air, there is a fixed ratio between the concentration of the compound in air and its concentration in water. This ratio is constant at a given temperature. The human body is 37 degrees Celsius on average. Breath leaves the mouth at a temperature of 34 degrees Celsius. Alcohol in the body obeys Henry’s Law as it is a volatile compound and diffuses in body water. To ensure that variables such as fever and hypothermia could not be pointed out to influence the results in a way that was harmful to the accused, the instrument is calibrated at a ratio of 2100:1, underestimating by 9 percent. In order for a person running a fever to significantly overestimate, he would have to have a fever that would likely see the subject in the hospital rather than driving in the first place. Studies suggest that about 1.8% of the population have a partition ratio below 2100:1. Thus, a machine using a 2100-to-1 ratio could actually overestimate the BAC. As much as 14% of the population has a partition ratio above 2100, thus causing the machine to under-report the BAC. Further, the assumption that the test subject’s partition ratio will be average—that there will be 2100 parts in the blood for every part in the breath—means that accurate analysis of a given individual’s blood alcohol by measuring breath alcohol is difficult, as the ratio varies considerably.
Variance in how much one breathes out can also give false readings, usually low. This is due to biological variance in breath alcohol concentration as a function of the volume of air in the lungs, an example of a factor which interferes with the liquid-gas equilibrium assumed by the devices. The presence of volatile components is another example of this; mixtures of volatile compounds can be more volatile than their components, which can create artificially high levels of ethanol (or other) vapors relative to the normal biological blood/breath alcohol equilibrium.
One of the most common causes of falsely high breath analyzer readings is the existence of mouth alcohol. In analyzing a subject’s breath sample, the breath analyzer’s internal computer is making the assumption that the alcohol in the breath sample came from alveolar air-that is, air exhaled from deep within the lungs. However, alcohol may have come from the mouth, throat or stomach for a number of reasons. To help guard against mouth-alcohol contamination, certified breath-test operators are trained to observe a test subject carefully for at least 15–20 minutes before administering the test.
The problem with mouth alcohol being analyzed by the breath analyzer is that it was not absorbed through the stomach and intestines and passed through the blood to the lungs. In other words, the machine’s computer is mistakenly applying the partition ratio and multiplying the result. Consequently, a very tiny amount of alcohol from the mouth, throat or stomach can have a significant impact on the breath-alcohol reading.
Other than recent drinking, the most common source of mouth alcohol is from belching or burping. This causes the liquids and/or gases from the stomach—including any alcohol—to rise up into the soft tissue of the esophagus and oral cavity, where it will stay until it has dissipated. The American Medical Association concludes in its Manual for Chemical Tests for Intoxication (1959): “True reactions with alcohol in expired breath from sources other than the alveolar air (eructation, regurgitation, vomiting) will, of course, vitiate the breath alcohol results.” For this reason, police officers are supposed to keep a DUI suspect under observation for at least 15 minutes prior to administering a breath test. Instruments such as the Intoxilyzer 5000 also feature a “slope” parameter. This parameter detects any decrease in alcohol concentration of 0.006g per 210L of breath in 0.6 second, a condition indicative of residual mouth alcohol, and will result in an “invalid sample” warning to the operator, notifying the operator of the presence of the residual mouth alcohol. PBT’s, however, feature no such safeguard.
Acid reflux, or gastroesophageal reflux disease, can greatly exacerbate the mouth-alcohol problem. The stomach is normally separated from the throat by a valve, but when this valve becomes herniated, there is nothing to stop the liquid contents in the stomach from rising and permeating the esophagus and mouth. The contents-including any alcohol-are then later exhaled into the breathalyzer.
Mouth alcohol can also be created in other ways. Dentures, for example, will trap alcohol. Periodontal disease can also create pockets in the gums which will contain the alcohol for longer periods. Also known to produce false results due to residual alcohol in the mouth is passionate kissing with an intoxicated person. Recent use of mouthwash or breath fresheners can skew results upward as they can contain fairly high levels of alcohol.
Testing during absorptive phase
Absorption of alcohol continues for anywhere from 20 minutes (on an empty stomach) to two-and-one-half hours (on a full stomach) after the last consumption. Peak absorption generally occurs within an hour. During the initial absorptive phase, the distribution of alcohol throughout the body is not uniform. Uniformity of distribution, called equilibrium, occurs just as absorption completes. In other words, some parts of the body will have a higher blood alcohol content (BAC) than others. One aspect of the non-uniformity before absorption is complete is that the BAC in arterial blood will be higher than in venous blood. Laws generally require blood samples to be venous.
During the initial absorption phase, arterial blood alcohol concentrations are higher than venous. After absorption, venous blood is higher. This is especially true with bolus dosing. With additional doses of alcohol, the body can reach a sustained equilibrium when absorption and elimination are proportional, calculating a general absorption rate of 0.02/drink and a general elimination rate of 0.015/hour. (One drink is equal to 1.5 ounces of liquor, 12 ounces of beer, or 5 ounces of wine.)
Breath alcohol is a representation of the equilibrium of alcohol concentration as the blood gases (alcohol) pass from the (arterial) blood into the lungs to be expired in the breath. The venous blood picks up oxygen for distribution throughout the body. Breath alcohol concentrations are generally lower than blood alcohol concentrations, because a true representation of blood alcohol concentration is only possible if the lungs were able to completely deflate. Vitreous (eye) fluid provides the most accurate account of blood alcohol concentrations.
The breath analyzer test is usually administered at a police station, commonly an hour or more after the arrest. Although this gives the BrAC at the time of the test, it does not by itself answer the question of what it was at the time of driving. The prosecution typically provides an estimated alcohol concentration at the time of driving utilizing retrograde extrapolation, presented by expert opinion. This involves projecting back in time to estimate the BrAC level at the time of driving, by applying the physiological properties of absorption and elimination rates in the human body.
Extrapolation is calculated using five factors and a general elimination rate of 0.015/hour.
For example: Time of breath test-10:00pm…Result of breath test-0.080…Time of driving-9:00pm (stopped by officer)…Time of last drink-8:00pm…Last food-12:00pm
Using these facts, an expert can say the person’s last drink was consumed on an empty stomach, which means absorption of the last drink (at 8:00) was complete within one hour-9:00. At the time of the stop, the driver is fully absorbed. The test result of 0.080 was at 10:00. So the one hour of elimination that has occurred since the stop is added in, making 0.080+0.015=0.095 the approximate breath alcohol concentration at the time of the stop.