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Myth Busted: Sucking on a Copper Penny Will Fool a Breathalyzer Test

Claim: If you've had too much to drink and are pulled over by police, sucking on a copper penny will cause a chemical reaction that will fool the breathalyzer, causing it to register negative blood alcohol.

Status: False.

Variants:

  • Some say the trick will cause the breathalyzer to show an absurdly high level of blood alcohol, allowing a defendant to make a case for test malfunction.
  • Some say the successful use of this trick in the past is why the U.S. mint changed the composition of pennies from pure copper to mostly zinc.
  • Variations on the copper penny gambit include:
    • Sucking on a nickel
    • Sucking on mints or cough drops
    • Eating garlic or onion.
    • Eating peanuts
    • Eating curry powder
    • Taking a very deep breath of fresh air before the test
    • Chewing vitamin C tablets

Analysis: Even if the slight amount of copper in a U.S. penny caused a chemical reaction with the alcohol in a drunk person's saliva (a claim with no scientific basis I'm aware of), it wouldn't likely fool a breathalyzer, which measures blood alcohol content by sampling air blown from deep within the subject's lungs. Besides which, standard procedure for the test includes a 15- to 20-minute delay before taking a sample so the subject can be observed, and to ensure that any recently imbibed substance has been fully absorbed into the bloodstream.

It's also worth noting that, in the manner of all folklore, this claim never rests on personal experience — e.g., "I did this, and it worked!" — but is instead stated in second-person, conditional form: "I heard that if you do this, you can beat the breathalyzer test."

The Discovery Channel's Mythbusters Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman tested various methods alleged to beat standard breathalyzer analysis in an episode originally aired in November 2003. None of the methods worked.

Resources:

How a Breathalyzer Works
By Craig C. Freudenrich, Ph.D., HowStuffWorks.com

Is It Possible to Beat a Breathalyzer by Sucking on a Penny?
Seattle 911 - A Police Blog (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 16 February 2009

Man Tries to Beat Breathalyzer with Pennies
Local6.com News, 9 July 2003


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Last updated 03/09/10

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