The breathalyzer has had a long and storied career as the roadside collector of bad breath. Now, prosecutors and police in Washington, DC, have declared that they will not be using the device for the next several months due to problems with its accuracy.
The issue began last year when the district's police force announced that it was having problems calibrating its breathalyzer equipment, WYSA 9 News reports. The device itself operates on a fairly simple principle. A driver blows into it, and an electrical element turns any alcohol present on the exhalation to water and acetic acid, which is the compound that gives vinegar its smell.
It's little wonder than alcohol can cause bad breath. Most immediately, drinking can leave the smell of ethanol in the mouth, an odor that is relatively easy for the nose to recognize. As time passes, alcohol consumption can cause halitosis in another way - it dries the mouth out.
Because it evaporates at a lower temperature than water, alcohol is a drying agent. Think about rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizer. After putting some on your skin, it takes just a few seconds for it to dry. This is the reason some sanitizers are marketed as containing aloe and other moisturizers. Their manufacturers are as aware as anyone that these products can dry skin out.
The same goes for alcoholic beverages and the mouth. By drinking liquor, wine or beer, a person is allowing their palate to slowly dry out. In time, their breath will begin to smell foul, as anaerobic oral microbes begin to emit sulfurous compounds.
Breathalyzers essentially exist to measure this form of halitosis. The first viable technology to measure alcohol breath was created in 1931 and aptly called the "Drunkometer." Its inventor, Professor Rolla Harger of Indiana University, designed a device that would collect alcoholic bad breath in a balloon and pass it through a chemical solution that changed color in the presence of alcohol.
According to his obituary in the New York Times, Harger made the first practical technology for testing whether drivers are drunk.
Other methods exist today. In lieu of the breathalyzer, Washington, DC, will be using more expensive urine tests to check drivers' blood alcohol content, the Washington Post reports. That may amount to more than 120 urine tests every month, the news source estimates.
The alcohol-detecting, halitosis-collecting devices will likely be up and running again in another four months, the Post adds.
Besides abstaining from alcohol - and always forgoing driving when intoxicated - people with bad breath may consider periodically rinsing their mouth out with a speciality breath freshener that moistens the palate.