As we all know, during these crazy times of Covid-19, hand sanitizer has become everyone’s most important item. It has become second nature for most people that you immediately reach for the hand sanitizer and lather up your hands with the stuff after exiting any place that wasn’t your home or car.
Some of the sanitizers you used have been over-the-counter alcohol-based hand sanitizers that probably had somewhere between 60–95% of ethanol. The US Food and Drug Administration approved this amount of alcohol as a safe and effective range for all-over-the-counter antiseptic handwashes.
What you probably didn’t know, though, is that the ethanol found in hand sanitizer does not absorb into your skin. However, it could have the possibility of lingering in the air after you’ve used it, which can affect a breathalyzer reading.
New Study on ABHS and a breathalyzer
A recent study appearing in the Journal for Forensic Science was done to test this idea, using something called an evidential breath analyzer. The same thing is used here in BC police stations, which are called an Approved Instrument, to test blood alcohol levels after a person has been arrested for drunk driving. This is the evidence gathered in a criminal case and used to support criminal charges of impaired driving.
In most cases, these breathalyzers can detect whether there is ambient air alcohol, alcohol that is lingering in the air, or mouth alcohol, alcohol in a subject’s mouth, but not the bloodstream. If it detects one of the problems mentioned above, the breathalyzer should abort the test.
That means that instead of giving a reading, the instrument will rather have an error code pop up.
The study was done with 130 subjects who had not consumed any alcohol. They were each sat in a room alone, where a test administrator would sanitize their hands and then attach the mouthpiece of the breathalyzer onto the breath analyzer.
Of 130 samples collected under these conditions in the study, 41 of them, or 31.5%, resulted in a status code suggesting that it detected alcohol. As written in the study, “These status codes were caused by ethanol vapours either in the room air or their inhalation by the subject, thereby causing a mouth alcohol effect.”
False Positives from air alcohol
Now you may be wondering why this matters. After all, if the instrument detects the alcohol and aborts the test, isn’t that a good thing? Doesn’t that mean that we won’t see any flawed readings due to alcohol from hand sanitizer?
But that’s not the case.
While 41 samples resulted in an error code, some did not produce an error code. In thirteen instances – ten percent! Of tests – resulted in positive breath alcohol concentrations, and no error code appeared.
As written in the study, “exposure to Alcohol-Based Hand Sanitizer (ABHS) vapours may result in positive breath alcohol results on portable breath alcohol instruments.”
Even though 10% seems low, it is still concerning that an instrument programmed to detect breath alcohol and air alcohol failed to do so 10% of the time.
What this means for roadside breathalyzers
The idea of these breathalyzers failing at a job they are supposed to do successfully becomes even more problematic with the roadside breathalyzer. These are the devices used by police in British Columbia to give a driver a 90-day driving prohibition, tow their car for 30 days, and impose fines and penalties. These devices do not have a feature that allows them to detect ambient air or mouth alcohol. This means that they cannot abort the breath test if this is detected.
Instead, the false positives would mean a driver provided a higher reading in any case involving a roadside breathalyzer. Not from alcohol consumed and in the driver’s body… but from alcohol wafting off the police officer’s hands.
Imagine the potential for abuse here!
It is concerning to think about all the possible false positives on roadside breathalyzer tests that may have resulted from hand sanitizer vapour lingering in the air.
In these Covid times, hand sanitizer has become our best friend. Especially when we leave a place and get right into our car, many people put on their hand sanitizer first thing. It’s scary now to think that this cleaning product we’re being advised to use could end up being why we get into trouble at a roadside stop. In fact, hand sanitizer could become your worst enemy!