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Can a frat party really register the air as “Legally Impaired” on a breathalyzer?

By Lee Cleveland - May 10, 2023

Have you ever heard of a party so wild that the air itself was legally intoxicated?

That’s what allegedly happened at a frat party in Baltimore back in 2017, where police claimed that the ambient air tested at .01 on a breathalyzer, enough to legally classify the house as impaired in California.

But is this really possible? Let’s dive into the science behind breathalyzers and try to separate fact from fiction.

How Do Breathalyzers Work?

First, let’s take a closer look at how breathalyzers actually work. Contrary to popular belief, they don’t actually measure blood alcohol content (BAC) directly. Instead, they estimate it by analyzing the amount of ethanol in your breath. When you blow into a breathalyzer, the ethanol in your breath reacts with water from the air, producing an electrical current that’s proportional to the amount of ethanol present. This current is then used to estimate your BAC.

Can Ambient Air Really Test Positive for Alcohol?

Now, let’s return to the frat party in question. According to SB Nation, in order to register at .01 on a breathalyzer, the average person needs to consume about 0.75 ounces (22 milliliters) of liquor. For a 2,000-square-foot (185-square-meter) house with 9-foot (2.7-meter) ceilings, you would need a staggering 1.2 gallons (5.5 liters) of liquor in the air. This seems implausible, to say the least.

However, there were a few factors at play that might have contributed to the elevated reading. First, the party had around 120 underage guests crammed into a confined space. Second, the partygoers had covered the windows with garbage bags, preventing any alcohol droplets from escaping. Finally, the floor was covered in spilled alcoholic beverages. All of these factors could have contributed to a higher-than-normal level of ambient alcohol.

What About Other Sources of Ethanol?

It’s also worth noting that breathalyzers don’t just measure the ethanol in your breath. They can also be influenced by other sources of ethanol in the vicinity, such as alcoholic beverages and spilled alcohol. As forensic toxicologist Dwain C. Fuller told Buzzfeed News, “The ambient alcohol registered by the breath device would be a combination of breath alcohol, alcoholic beverages, and spilled alcohol.”

Even something as simple as using hand sanitizer in a closed room could result in an elevated ambient alcohol reading.

The Verdict

So, is it possible for a frat party to register as legally impaired on a breathalyzer? The answer is…maybe.

While it’s highly unlikely that the air itself was legally intoxicated, there were enough contributing factors at play that it’s not completely implausible. However, it’s also worth noting that breathalyzers are not foolproof and can be influenced by a variety of factors. As with any legal issue, the specifics of the case matter, and it’s ultimately up to the courts to decide.


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