New invention helps people sober up by exhaling alcohol
It’s a real buzz kill.
Canadian researchers have introduced a life-saving invention to mitigate severe alcohol intoxication, thanks to a simple breathing device that requires no special training. The device can help a drunk person detoxify three times faster than they otherwise would.
Excessive alcohol consumption is responsible for 95,000 deaths in the United States every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control, including traffic accidents and alcohol poisoning.
Part of the reason alcohol is such a prominent killer in this country is due to the fact that the human body, specifically the liver, processes alcohol at a rate that cannot be artificially sped up. The more drunk you become, the more drunk you remain — which explains how alcohol poisoning occurs. When the amount of alcohol in the blood overtakes the rate at which the liver can filter those toxins, victims may then pass out and eventually lose control of their respiratory function.
In a medical setting, those with alcohol poisoning are often pumped of any excess alcohol, then made comfortable and monitored for lung and heart function while the liver finishes its job.
However, the new device, comprised of a gas mask connected to a supply of oxygen and carbon dioxide, employs a basic physiological means of reducing drunkenness. While the liver does most of the heavy lifting, the lungs, too, play a role. When alcohol-soaked blood reaches the lungs, ordinarily supplying a fresh batch of oxygen, the respiratory organs are met also with a wave of intoxicant. It’s part of the reason why breathalyzers work, and why your breath reeks of booze (besides the fact that you may also need to brush your teeth).
Their invention attempts then to boost this ordinarily fixed process by forcing the individual to breath more, faster — what we call hyperventilation. Of course, hyperventilation itself can be dangerous because our bodies are being deprived of necessary carbon dioxide. It’s the reason why some faint when they panic and breathe rapidly. So doctors devised a system that would essentially promote hyperventilation without the discomfort, by providing them with just enough carbon dioxide to ease those physical triggers.
“With each breath, it is designed to allow the normal amount of carbon dioxide to escape and any excess is returned on the very next breath,” said study author and inventor Joseph Fisher, an anesthesiologist at University Health Network in Toronto. In a statement to Gizmodo, Fisher explained, “This is all done in a simple way by a mechanical valve so it is foolproof — without needing electronics or computers.”
Fisher and his colleagues, whose work was published in Scientific Reports on Thursday, recruited five volunteers with a clean bill of health to get tipsy on cocktails of 80-proof vodka mixed with 500 milliliters of water. Over a two-day study period, participants were observed drinking, then sobering up naturally and via the device, which researchers found helps detoxify three times faster than without the gas mask.
“The greater the alcohol concentration in the blood, the more effective the method is,” Fisher said. “If the patient is unconscious, a tube can be placed in the lungs to protect the patient’s breathing, and the method can then be applied manually.”
Researchers have known about the lungs’ function in detoxification for a long time, but Fisher may be the first to bring the process to marketable fruition — going so far as to register his invention with the brand name ClearMate.
The Food and Drug Administration has already granted his company, Thornhill Medical, approval to manufacture the device for emergency rooms in the US, as a treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning. It could also be used to clear other toxins such as methanol or polyethylene glycol, both of which are associated with “bootleg” alcohol.
“The method is so simple and obvious that even looking at it, no one recognizes its potential,” said Fisher. “Hiding in plain sight. I don’t know how else to explain it.”
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