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New invention helps people sober up by exhaling alcohol

Study finds rapid breathing accelerates elimination of alcohol from an intoxicated person’s system

Kate Ng
Friday 13 November 2020 00:32 GMT
A volunteer demonstrates how the Clearmate device works to help patients hyperventilate to reduce alcohol or carbon monoxide poisoning
A volunteer demonstrates how the Clearmate device works to help patients hyperventilate to reduce alcohol or carbon monoxide poisoning (University Health Network)

Canadian researchers believe they have found a way to help people breathe alcohol out of their system to avoid harmful or potentially fatal alcohol poisoning.

Scientists from the University of Toronto found that helping people hyperventilate safely sped up the clearance of alcohol from healthy volunteers three times faster than if the volunteers breathed normally while there was alcohol in their systems.

The controlled hyperventilation, also known as isocapnic hyperpnea (IH), can be achieved using a device the team developed called the ClearMate, which consists of a gas mask connected to a supply of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Alcohol is a toxin and can be broken down when the liver metabolises it. This takes time and the process cannot be sped up when a person has enough alcohol in their system that it could be fatal or seriously dangerous.

According to a small pilot study published by researchers in the science journal Nature, alcohol can also be eliminated through breathing, which is why alcohol can be smelled on someone’s breath when they have been drinking.

However, hyperventilating too much for too long can cause people to lose too much carbon dioxide, which can lead to fainting.

The device developed by the researchers allows for patients to hyperventilate and breathe in both oxygen and carbon dioxide so that the body adjusts to the breathing pattern without causing the patient to lose consciousness.

Joseph Fisher, who authored the study and invented the ClearMate device, told Gizmodo that the machinery allows for “the normal amount of carbon dioxide to escape and any excess is returned on the very next breath”.

He said there was no need for electronics or computers as the divide operated with a mechanical valve, making it “foolproof”.

The study involved getting five healthy male volunteers mildly intoxicated with a mix of vodka and water, and examining the length of time it took for their blood alcohol levels to reduce both naturally and by using the device for half an hour.

It found that volunteers appeared to sober up three times quicker when using the breathing device compared to regular breathing.

The small size of the study means its results should be viewed with caution, but the device is not new. The ClearMate device won marketing approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US to be used in emergency rooms to treat carbon monoxide poisoning.

Mr Fisher said it can be used to treat both conditions and others in the future.

“The method is so simple and obvious that even looking at it, no one recognises its potential,” he was quoted as saying. “Hiding in plain sight. I don’t know how else to explain it.”

According to Mr Fisher, it can also be used on patients who have passed out, as a tube can be placed in the lungs “to protect the patient’s breathing”, and the device can be used manually to help them breathe.

The team called for follow-up studies to be conducted to “confirm the effectiveness” of hyperventilation on alcohol elimination.

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