An Iowa Woman Had a Blood Alcohol Content of .341. Is That Even Possible?

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Sept. 4 2013 5:16 PM

An Iowa Woman Had a Blood Alcohol Content of .341. Is That Even Possible?

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In this file photo, a Chinese police officer uses a breathalyzer test on a car driver suspected to be intoxicated in Beijing on April 3, 2010.

Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images

Over the weekend, Deadspin wrote about University of Iowa student Samantha Goudie, otherwise known as “Vodka Samm,” who lived up to her Twitter handle by allegedly registering a remarkable blood alcohol content of .341 after police prevented her from running onto the field during Saturday’s Northern Illinois-Iowa football game. A BAC of .341 is extremely high—an anti-binge drinking website notes that a .35 BAC “is the level of surgical anesthesia”—to the point where, if you’ve never been to a Big Ten school during football season, you might wonder whether the breath testing device malfunctioned. Is it possible that the Breathalyzer test was correct here? What do BAC tests even measure?

Lucky for you, I’ve been TIPS trained, so I’m well equipped to answer this question, and also to identify and confiscate your fake ID. When you drink, alcohol enters your stomach and small intestine and moves quickly into your bloodstream, where it circulates around your body and dissolves into your tissues, impeding motor functions and causing cognitive impairment. The more alcohol in the bloodstream, the higher the BAC, and the clumsier and stupider the drinker becomes.

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A Breathalyzer test is the best-known way of estimating your BAC, and it does this by measuring the alcohol content of the air in your lungs. These tests are generally reliable, but not always. Sociologist David J. Hanson has written about the flaws inherent in breath-based alcohol testing. “A major problem with some machines is that they not only identify the ethyl alcohol (or ethanol) found in alcohol beverages, but also other substances similar in molecular structure,” writes Hanson, who goes on to note that environmental substances—paint or gasoline fumes, for instance—can also affect Breathalyzer results. Maybe Samantha Goudie had been painting her kitchen before the game last Saturday. Hey, it’s possible.

If you want to confirm a Breathalyzer reading, you need to do a blood test. Analyzing a suspect’s blood sample is the best, most accurate way to determine whether she was truly as drunk as he seemed—or whether she was even more drunk. A North Liberty, Iowa man named Justin A. Clark was arrested last year on DUI charges and blew a .486. That seemed ridiculously high, so Clark was taken to the hospital and given a blood test, which confirmed that his BAC level was actually a staggering .627. That’s more than eight times Iowa’s legal limit, and, as Patch put it, this may have given Clark “the dubious distinction of being the most intoxicated person ever arrested in Johnson County.” Good luck breaking that record, Samantha Goudie.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.

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