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Study Reveals that Some Smartphone Breath Alcohol Testing Devices are Inaccurate and Suggests Need for Regulation

by Doug Ankney

According to a study from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (“PENN”), testing of the accuracy of seven smartphone breath alcohol testing devices revealed each device underestimated Blood-Alcohol Concentration (“BAC”) by more than 0.01%. To assess these devices, researchers used 20 moderate drinkers aged 21 through 39. Each subject was given three doses of vodka over 70 minutes to achieve a peak BAC of around 0.10%. After each dose, the subject’s breath alcohol concentration (“BrAC”) was measured using smartphone-paired devices and a police handheld device. After the final dose, the subject’s blood was drawn and tested for BAC, the most accurate measure of alcohol consumption. Using statistical analysis to explore differences between measurements, the researchers also analyzed each device’s ability to detect BAC above standard legal driving limits (0.05% and 0.08%).

Some of the devices were consistently more accurate than others. However, two devices failed to detect BrAC levels of 0.08% as measured by a police-grade device more than half the time. Since the completion of the study, one of the devices has been discontinued and removed from the market. Newer technologies have replaced other models.

Alcohol-impaired driving kills 29 people per day and costs $121 billion a year in the U.S. According to lead investigator M. Kit Delgado, MD, MS, and professor of Emergency Medicine and Epidemiology at Penn, “[a]ll alcohol-impaired driving crashes are preventable tragedies.” People often rely on these smartphone breath alcohol testing devices when deciding whether or not to drive. Delgado said, “[w]hile it’s always best to plan not to drive after drinking if the public or addiction treatment providers are going to use these devices, some are more accurate than others. Given how beneficial these breathalyzer devices could be to public health, our findings suggest that oversight or regulation would be valuable.” Delgado suggests that the Food and Drug Administration should begin requiring approval for these devices based on the study's findings.


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