A recent Reddit post has drawn our attention to a party that apparently went so hard that the air tested positive for booze on a breathalyzer.
The frat party, which took place in Baltimore in 2017, had around 120 underage guests in attendance. According to CBS News, police arrived following a noise complaint. For reasons unclear, the cops tested the ambient air and claimed that it registered at .01 on a breathalyzer. That's enough for the house to be classed as legally impaired in California, meaning it would have been in serious trouble if it had tried to drive a car.
So, is this even possible? First, a little about how breathalyzers work, starting with the fact they are not measuring blood alcohol levels, but estimating it.
"Breath analyzers (Breathalyzer is a brand name) contain an anode (negatively charged electrode) and a cathode (positively charged electrode). When you blow into a breathalyzer, the ethanol in your breath reacts with water from the air at the anode and is oxidized to form acetic acid (like in vinegar)," science writer Ada McVean explained for the McGill Office for Science and Society.
"Meanwhile, at the cathode, oxygen from the atmosphere is reduced to form water. These two coupled reactions produce an electrical current between the electrodes that’s proportional to the amount of ethanol present in your breath. So, breathalyzers don’t truly measure blood alcohol content (which can only be done with a blood test) but estimate it based on the ethanol in your breath."
So for the cops claims about ambient alcohol levels to be true, the house does not need a blood supply, just a lot of alcohol floating about in the air. And we do mean a lot of alcohol floating around the air.
"In order to blow a .01 on a breathalyzer, the average person needs to consume about 0.75 ounces [22 milliliters] of liquor," SB Nation explained at the time. "If we expand that to a 2,000-square-foot [185-square-meter] house with, say, 9-foot [2.7-meter] ceilings, you’d need ... wait for it ... 1.2 GALLONS [5.5 LITERS] OF LIQUOR IN THE AIR!"
While that seems implausible, given the amount of exhaled alcohol that would involve, there were contributing factors that put it within the realms of "possible" again. As well as cramming 126 underage drinkers into a confined space, the partygoers had taken the step of taping the windows over with garbage bags, stopping any precious alcohol droplets from escaping. The floor was also "sticky and covered with alcoholic beverages", another possible contributor. While breath testers are useful, they are by no means foolproof, for instance, reading higher if you have alcohol in your mouth.
"The ambient alcohol registered by the breath device would be a combination of breath alcohol, alcoholic beverages, and spilled alcohol," forensic toxicologist Dwain C. Fuller told Buzzfeed News, adding that the scenario was "possible".
"Something as simple as using ethanol-based hand sanitizer in a closed room or vehicle can result in an ambient alcohol of 0.03 g/dL or probably greater."
All in all, it is vaguely plausible that the frat party was so "off the hook" (to use party language the kids are using in 1992) that the ambient air tested positive for alcohol, but more plausible that alcohol in the vicinity of the breathalyzer cause the elevated reading.