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Posted on  

January 2, 2002

Gas Additive Unlikely to Throw Off Alcohol Test

By Keith Mulvihill

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Although theoretically possible, it is very unlikely that people exposed to the gasoline additive MTBE will register a false positive on a breath-alcohol test, according to a new study.

MTBE is an additive that helps gasoline burn more cleanly. However, tiny amounts can give water a foul taste and smell. The additive, suspected of being carcinogenic, has been banned in several states and is being phased out nationwide.

Anecdotal reports have suggested that people exposed to high levels of MBTE may have false positive readings on tests used to determine legal alcohol intoxication, note Dr. Timothy J. Buckley of the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, and colleagues.

To investigate, Buckley and his team used lab tests to evaluate whether MBTE exposure might interfere with the results of the two breath tests most commonly used to gauge alcohol intoxication. Their findings are published in the December issue of Forensic Science International.

The researchers used the Breathalyzer detector and the newer Alcotest to measure levels of ethanol alone and in combination with various amounts of MTBE. The MBTE levels were designed to simulate those that would be found in a person with high level environmental or occupational exposure to the gas additive.

The researchers found that very high levels of MTBE exposure could indeed conceivably produce a false positive reading on the Breathalyzer test if the person tested had been exposed to the gas additive recently and had been drinking alcohol.

Alcotest, the newer technology, did not respond to MTBE at lower levels, the researchers found. And at higher levels the instrument indicated an ``interference'' or ``error'' reading.

``It is very unlikely that you would see a false positive due to MTBE exposure (in the real world),'' Buckley said in an interview with Reuters Health.

A number of unique circumstances would have to coincide in order for a false positive result to occur, he explained.

Buckley noted that first a person would have to be exposed to high levels of MTBE, which is rare even for people working directly with the additive. Second, he said, the person would have to have been drinking, and third, the older Breathalyzer test would have to be used.

``The combination of those three circumstances has got to be pretty rare even for those working at a gas station refueling vehicles with MTBE and then ingesting some alcohol,'' he added.


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