Periodontal Devices and Breath Testing

Interviewer: What physical ailments or physical characteristics can affect the breath test?

Leckerman: In New Jersey, the Alcotest 7110 is the instrument used to do breath testing. The breath testing device may accidentally analyze alcohol contained in someone’s mouth as opposed to someone’s breath. This may cause an artificial inflation of the final breath test result. When it comes to dental issues for a driver, there are specific situations that could potentially cause the breath test results to be artificially inflated. There are a number of studies that have been done to figure out whether these breath testing devices can actually be fooled into thinking that alcohol in somebody’s mouth is actually alcohol in somebody’s breath. Issues may arise when a person has either bridges or dentures.

In 1994, a study was done in London to determine if a person with a bridge or other periodontal device could have residual mouth alcohol that would artificially inflate a breath test reading. With a bridge or a denture there could be space between that periodontal device and the gum. The question becomes, can alcohol get trapped in that space? If alcohol becomes trapped in the space, would a breath sample capture that raw alcohol in the mouth and be blown into the breath testing machine? When there’s raw alcohol in somebody’s mouth it would cause an exponentially higher breath test result, because the numbers of molecules of raw alcohol in the mouth would be much greater than what would be found in the breath sample.

The other issue that can arise from the presence of a bridge or a denture involves food that’s trapped in the space between the periodontal device and the gums. Alcohol may be absorbed by the food and can remain in the mouth longer that just raw alcohol in its liquid form. This study revealed that breath test results can be affected by raw alcohol trapped in the space created by the periodontal device. The breath test result would be much higher and can lead to false prosecutions.

In 1992, there was another study done in the United States that tested individuals who used dentures with and without the use of adhesives. The purpose of the study was to see if breath alcohol readings could be inflated, because of the presence of alcohol that gets trapped in the periodontal device. The study acknowledged there can be residual mouth alcohol under these periodontal devices that can cause inflation of breath testing results. However, this particular study established that a pre-breath test observation period of 15 to 20 minutes provides sufficient time for the dissipation of residual mouth alcohol.

There is a requirement in most states with breath testing, and specifically in New Jersey, that an operator of the breath testing device has to conduct a 20-minute deprivation/observation period with the driver immediately prior to taking the first breath samples.

The 20-minute observation period is designed specifically to ensure that the driver doesn’t ingest any alcohol, burp or regurgitate prior to breath testing. This procedure was designed is to rule out the potential defense of residual mouth alcohol. Not only is there a potential scientific defense but there is a potential procedural defense if the operator of the Alcotest did not do the 20-minute observation period. It is mandated by the Supreme Court that the Alcotest operator carried out this 20-minute observation period. If he did not conduct a 20-minute observation period, then the breath test results are not permitted as evidence, even if the driver did not have a periodontal device.