Will Sucking on Penny Fool a Breathalyzer Test?

Don't Try It With the Police!

Woman Blowing in Breathalyzer
powerofforever / Getty Images

Have you heard that sucking on a copper penny will cause a chemical reaction that will fool the breathalyzer, causing it to register negative blood alcohol? If you've had too much to drink and are pulled over by police, don't try it--this claim is false!

Variants on the Myth

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.

Others report the because this trick has been successful,  the U.S. mint changed the composition of pennies from pure copper to mostly zinc.
 

Variations on the Copper Penny Gambit

  1. Sucking on a nickel
  2. Sucking on mints or cough drops: Breath fresheners such as mints, gun or sprays can cover the odor of your breath, but they cannot change the amount of alcohol present that will register on a breathalyzer. In fact, mouthwash can contain alcohol and thus can elevate blood alcohol content readings.)
  3. Eating garlic or onion
  4. Eating peanuts: This is the closest option that could work...if you could wash your lungs with peanut butter! The high levels of sodium in peanut butter will neutralize ethanol in alcohol by creating two byproducts - sodium ethoxide and hydrogen gas. But, the problem is that ingested peanut butter goes to your stomach and not the lungs, which is where the air that's full of alcohol is going to be expelled.
  1. Eating curry powder. 
  2. Taking a very deep breath, hyperventilating or holding your breath before you blow: An old study from decades ago found that hyperventilation and vigorous exercise did lower participants' BAC readings by as much as 10 percent. On the flip side, holding their breath actually increased BAC readings by up to 20 percent. Keep in mind that these methods can also make you lightheaded and gasping for air – odd behavior that will likely call the attention of a police officer who already thinks you're under the influence. Also note that only blowing lightly  into a breathalyzer doesn't work either as it gives accurate reading with small breath samples.)
  1. Chewing vitamin C tablets

Analysis of the Copper Penny Myth

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), it wouldn't likely fool a breathalyzer which measures blood alcohol content by sampling air blown from deep within your lungs. Besides that fact, 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.

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.

Interestingly, this claim never reports personal experience, but rather is stated as a rumor: "I heard that if you do this, you can beat the breathalyzer test."

Resources:

How a Breathalyzer Works
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, February 16, 2009