What Are the Causes of False Positives on a Breathalyzer?

By Nelly Morrison
Not all breathalyzer tests results are accurate.

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About half of all fatal traffic accidents involve drivers with a blood alcohol level higher than the legal limit. A large proportion of drunk drivers are repeat offenders, and breathalyzer machines are an important tool in keeping them off the roads. Unfortunately, there are many factors that show not all breathalyzer test results are accurate.

History

Breathalyzer

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From as early as 1874, scientists were trying to find a breath test that could measure alcohol consumption. Drunk driving laws were first introduced in New York in 1910. Other countries followed suit, but enforcement relied on the subjective opinion of police officers using field sobriety tests. In 1927 Emil Bogen discovered the relationship between alcohol in expelled air and alcohol in urine. In 1938, this science was used to create the "Drunkometer," followed in 1941 by the "Intoxometer." In 1954, Professor Brokenstein, a forensic scientist with the Indiana State Police, invented the first "Breathalyzer," the forerunner of machines used today.

Technical Reliability

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A breathalyzer does not measure, but estimates, blood alcohol levels. Different machines can give estimates as much as 15 percent higher than actual blood alcohol levels so not all results are reliable. Other false positives can be caused by imprecise calibration, and many DUI (Driving Under the Influence) cases have been dismissed because estimated readings are deemed inaccurate. Breathalyzer readings can be challenged because assumptions of the blood alcohol to lung air alcohol conversion vary from person to person.

False Readings

DUI arrest

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Ethyl alcohol molecules, which are found in alcoholic beverages, are very similar to methyl molecules, which appear in 70 or 80 percent of compounds found in human breath. Acetone is a methyl compound and is commonly found in the breath of diabetics and people practicing low-calorie diets. Those following high-protein diets are especially at risk of having false positive breathalyzer results as the body is producing extra ketones, which are a form of acetone.

Other Influences

Breathalyzer

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False positive breathalyzer readings can also be a result of alcohol, blood or vomit in the mouth at the time the reading is taken. Both ambient and human temperature can raise results as can interference from mobile phones or police radios, dirt, moisture and tobacco smoke. In Frankston, Australia, it was shown that two bites of ice cream caused a breathalyzer to register a positive result. Conversely, hyperventilation or intense physical activity lowers blood alcohol readings.

About the Author

Nelly Morrison started writing professionally in 1992 for The Children's Channel. She has since had her own lifestyle and beauty column in "Good Health Magazine" in the UK and has written biographical pieces for "Regency World." She was a producer at ITN Factual and she now reviews restaurants for "The List" in Scotland. Morrison studied writing at Edinburgh University.