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Blood alcohol content or blood alcohol concentration (abbreviated BAC) is the concentration of alcohol in a person's blood. BAC is most commonly used as a metric of intoxication for legal or medical purposes. It is usually measured in terms of mass per volume, but can also be measured in terms of mass per mass. Blood alcohol concentration is given in many different units and notations, but they are all relatively synonymous with each other numerically.

The number of drinks consumed is a poor measure of BAC, largely because of variations in weight, sex, and body fat. However, it is generally accepted that the consumption from sober of one standard drink of alcohol (e.g. 14 grams (17.74 ml) ethanol content by U.S. standard) will increase the average person's BAC roughly 0.02% to 0.05% and would return to 0% about 1.5 to 3 hours later (at a dissipation rate of around 0.015% per hour).

Effects at different levels

Unless a person has developed a high tolerance for alcohol, a BAC rating of 0.20% represents very serious intoxication (most first-time drinkers would be unconscious by about 0.15%), and 0.35%–0.40% represents potentially fatal alcohol poisoning. 0.40% is the accepted LD50, the dose that is lethal for 50% of adult humans. There have been cases of people remaining conscious at BACs above 0.40%, as is standard for a level which is fatal for only 50% of the population.


Progressive Effects of Alcohol
BAC (%) Behavior Impairment
0.01–0.029
  • Average individual appears
    normal
  • Subtle effects that can be
    detected with special tests
0.03–0.059
  • Sense of well-being
  • Relaxation
  • Talkativeness
  • Decreased inhibition
  • Alertness
  • Judgment
  • Coordination
  • Concentration
0.06–0.10
  • Blunted Feelings
  • Disinhibition
  • Extroversion
  • Reflexes
  • Reasoning
  • Depth Perception
  • Distance Acuity
  • Peripheral Vision
  • Glare Recovery
  • Impaired Sexual Performance
0.11–0.20
  • Over-Expression
  • Emotional Swings
  • Anger or Sadness
  • Boisterous
  • Reaction Time
  • Gross Motor Control
  • Staggering
  • Slurred Speech
0.21–0.29
  • Stupor
  • Loss of Understanding
  • Impaired Sensations


  • Severe Motor Impairment
  • Loss of Consciousness
  • Memory Blackout
0.30–0.39
  • Severe Depression
  • Unconsciousness
  • Death Possible
  • Bladder Function
  • Breathing
  • Heart Rate
>0.40
  • Unconsciousness
  • Death Possible
  • Breathing
  • Heart Rate
  • Brain Damage


Standard Drink Chart (US)
Alcohol Amount in ml Amount in fl. oz. Serving size Alcohol % by vol. Alcohol in fl. oz.
80 proof liquor 44 ml 1.5 fl. oz. one shot 40 0.6 fl. oz.
beer 355 ml 12 fl. oz. one can 5 0.6 fl. oz.
table wine 148 ml 5 fl. oz. one glass 12 0.6 fl. oz.


Male

Female
Approximate Blood Alcohol Percentage (US)

One drink has 0.5 fl. oz. alcohol by volume
Drinks Body Weight
40 kg 45 kg 55 kg 64 kg 73 kg 82 kg 91 kg 100 kg 109 kg
90 lb 100 lb 120 lb 140 lb 160 lb 180 lb 200 lb 220 lb 240 lb
6 st 6 lb 7 st 2 lb 8 st 8 lb 10 st 11 st 6 lb 12 st 12 lb 14 st 4 lb 15 st 10 lb 17 st 2 lb
1

.05
.04

.05
.03

.04
.03

.03
.02

.03
.02

.03
.02

.02
.02

.02
.02

.02
2

.10
.08

.09
.06

.08
.05

.07
.05

.06
.04

.05
.04

.05
.03

.04
.03

.04
3

.15
.11

.14
.09

.11
.08

.10
.07

.09
.06

.08
.06

.07
.05

.06
.05

.06
4

.20
.15

.18
.12

.15
.11

.13
.09

.11
.08

.10
.08

.09
.07

.08
.06

.08
5

.25
.19

.23
.16

.19
.13

.16
.12

.14
.11

.13
.09

.11
.09

.10
.08

.09
6

.30
.23

.27
.19

.23
.16

.19
.14

.17
.13

.15
.11

.14
.10

.12
.09

.11
7

.35
.26

.32
.22

.27
.19

.23
.16

.20
.15

.18
.13

.16
.12

.14
.11

.13
8

.40
.30

.36
.25

.30
.21

.26
.19

.23
.17

.20
.15

.18
.14

.17
.13

.15
9

.45
.34

.41
.28

.34
.24

.29
.21

.26
.19

.23
.17

.20
.15

.19
.14

.17
10

.51
.38

.45
.31

.38
.27

.32
.23

.28
.21

.25
.19

.23
.17

.21
.16

.19
Subtract approximately .01% every 40 minutes after drinking.


Units of measurement

There are several different units in use around the world for defining blood alcohol concentration. Each is defined as either a mass of alcohol per volume of blood or a mass of alcohol per mass of blood (never a volume per volume). 1 milliliter of blood is approximately equivalent to 1 gram of blood, 1.06 grams to be exact. Because of this, units by volume are similar but not identical to units by mass.

Unit Dimensions Equivalent to Used in
1 percent BAC by volume 1/100 (%) g/mL = 1 cg/mL 9.43 mg/g, 217.4 mmol/L United States, Australia, Canada
1 permille BAC by volume 1/1000 (‰) g/mL = 1 mg/mL 0.943 mg/g, 21.7 mmol/L Netherlands, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Germany
1 basis point BAC by volume 1/10,000 ( ) g/mL = 100 g/mL 94.3 ppm, 2.17 mmol/L Britain
1 permille BAC by mass 1/1000 (‰) g/g = 1 mg/g 1.06 mg/mL, 23 mmol/L Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark
1 part per million 1/1,000,000 (ppm) g/g = 1 g/g 1.06 g/mL, 23 mol/L
1 thousandth Molarity 1 mmol/L 0.0046 cg/mL, 4.34 cg/g Medical personnel


Legal limits

For purposes of law enforcement, BAC is used to define intoxication and provides a rough measure of impairment. Although degree of impairment may vary among individuals with the same BAC, BAC can be measured objectively and is therefore legally useful and difficult to contest in court. Most countries disallow operation of motor vehicles and heavy machinery above prescribed levels of BAC. Operation of boats and aircraft are also regulated.

Limits by country (BAC: Blood Alcohol Content)

The alcohol level at which a person is considered to be legally impaired varies by country. The list below gives limits by country. These are typically BAC (blood alcohol content) limits for the operation of a vehicle.

Zero tolerance, (It is illegal to have any alcohol in your blood while driving in these countries).
0.02%
0.03%
0.04%
  • Lithuaniamarker (0.02% for drivers in their first two years after gaining a driving license)
  • Saskatchewanmarker (for roadside suspension; .08% for DUI (criminal charges)
0.05%
0.08%
  • Canadamarker.
  • Please note that within this subsection of the criminal code of Canada, one can be charged for impaired driving without necessarily having a blood alcohol content of greater than 0.08.
  • .05 can get you a 24 hour suspension. If one is a new driver (2 years) they may not have any alcohol in their blood.
  • Malaysiamarker
  • Maltamarker
  • Mexicomarker
  • New Zealandmarker (0.03% for drivers under 20)
  • Irelandmarker
  • Singaporemarker
  • United Kingdommarker (0.02% for operators of fixed-wing aircraft)
  • United Statesmarker

    For further information on U.S. laws, see Alcohol laws of the United States by state.
  • (0.01% for operators of common carriers, such as buses, for pilots 0.019% to fly, .039 without loss of medical (no fly until .019 or below), .04 permanent revocation of license for pilots, no alcohol within 8 hours per Federal Aviation Regulations


Limits by country (BrAC: Breath Alcohol Content)

In certain countries, alcohol limits are determined by the Breath Alcohol Content (BrAC), not to be confused with BAC.

  • In Greecemarker, the BrAC limit is 25 microgrammes of alcohol per 100 millilitres of breath. The limit in blood is 0.50 g/l.
    • BrAC 25–40 = 200 fine
    • BrAC 40–60 = €700 fine, plus suspension of driving license for 90 days, dimitri eisai apaisios (introduced in 2007, )
    • BrAC >60 = 2 months imprisonment, plus suspension of driving license for 180 days, plus €1,200 fine
  • In Hong Kongmarker, the BrAC limit is 22 microgrammes per 100 millitres of breath (as well as other defined limits)
  • In The Netherlandsmarker and Finlandmarker, the BrAC limit is 220 microgrammes of alcohol per litre of breath (μg/l, colloquially known as "Ugl").
  • In Singaporemarker, the BrAC limit is 35 microgrammes of alcohol per 100 millilitres of breath.
  • In Spainmarker the BrAC limit is 25 microgrammes of alcohol per 100 millilitres of breath and 15 for drivers in their first two years after gaining a driving licence and common carriers.
  • In the United Kingdommarker the BrAC limit is 35 microgrammes of alcohol per 100 millilitres of breath (as well as the above defined BAC).


Other limitation schemes

  • For South Koreamarker, the penalties for different BAC levels include
    • 0.01–0.049 = No Penalty
    • 0.05–0.09 = 100 days license suspension
    • >0.10 = Cancellation of car license.
    • >0.36 = Arrest
    • Getting caught driving while drunk three times in five years; or twice in three years results in arrest.


Test assumptions

Blood alcohol tests assume the individual being tested is average in various ways. For example, on average the ratio of BAC to breath alcohol content (the partition ratio) is 2100 to 1. In other words, there are 2100 parts of alcohol in the blood for every part in the breath. However, the actual ratio in any given individual can vary from 1300:1 to 3100:1, or even more widely. This ratio varies not only from person to person, but within one person from moment to moment. Thus a person with a true blood alcohol level of .08 but a partition ratio of 1700:1 at the time of testing would have a .10 reading on a Breathalyzer calibrated for the average 2100:1 ratio.

A similar assumption is made in urinalysis. When urine is analyzed for alcohol, the assumption is that there are 1.3 parts of alcohol in the urine for every 1 part in the blood, even though the actual ratio can vary greatly.

Breath alcohol testing further assumes that the test is post-absorptive—that is, that the absorption of alcohol in the subject's body is complete. If the subject is still actively absorbing alcohol, his body has not reached a state of equilibrium where the concentration of alcohol is uniform throughout the body. Most forensic alcohol experts reject test results during this period as the amounts of alcohol in the breath will not accurately reflect a true concentration in the blood.

Metabolism and excretion

Alcohol is removed from the bloodstream by a combination of metabolism, excretion, and evaporation. The relative proportion disposed of in each way varies from person to person, but typically about 92 to 98% is metabolised, 10% is excreted in urine, and 1 to 5% evaporates through the breath. A very small proportion (less than 0.5%) is also excreted in the sweat, tears, etc. Excretion into urine typically begins after about 40 minutes, whereas metabolisation commences as soon as the alcohol is absorbed, and even before alcohol levels have risen in the brain.

Alcohol is metabolised mainly by the group of six enzymes collectively called alcohol dehydrogenase. These convert the ethanol into acetaldehyde (an intermediate that is actually more toxic than ethanol). The enzyme acetaldehyde dehydrogenase then converts the acetaldehyde into non-toxic Acetyl-CoA.

Many physiologically active materials are removed from the bloodstream (whether by metabolism or excretion) at a rate proportional to the current concentration, so that they exhibit exponential decay with a characteristic halflife (see pharmacokinetics). This is not true for alcohol, however. Typical doses of alcohol actually saturate the enzymes' capacity, so that alcohol is removed from the bloodstream at an approximately constant rate. This rate varies considerably between individuals; experienced male drinkers with a high body mass may process up to 30 grams (38 mL) per hour, but a more typical figure is 10 grams (12.7 mL) per hour. Persons below the age of 25 , women, persons of certain ethnicities, and persons with liver disease may process alcohol more slowly. Many East Asians (e.g. about half of Japanese) have impaired acetaldehyde dehydrogenase; this causes acetaldehyde levels to peak higher, producing more severe hangovers and other effects such as flushing and tachycardia. Conversely, members of certain ethnicities that traditionally did not brew alcoholic beverages have lower levels of alcohol dehydrogenases and thus "sober up" very slowly, but reach lower aldehyde concentrations and have milder hangovers. Rate of detoxification of alcohol can also be slowed by certain drugs which interfere with the action of alcohol dehydrogenases, notably aspirin, furfural (which may be found in fusel oil), fumes of certain solvents, many heavy metals, and some pyrazole compounds. Also suspected of having this effect are cimetidine (Tagamet), ranitidine (Zantac), and acetaminophen (Tylenol) (paracetamol).

Currently, the only known substance that can increase the rate of metabolism of alcohol is fructose. The effect can vary significantly from person to person, but a 100g dose of fructose has been shown to increase alcohol metabolism by an average of 80%.

Alcohol ingestion can be slowed by ingesting alcohol on a full stomach. Spreading the total absorption of alcohol over a greater period of time decreases the maximum alcohol level, decreasing the hangover effect. Thus, drinking on a full stomach or drinking while ingesting drugs which slow the release of acetaldehyde, will reduce the maximum blood levels of this substance, and decrease the hangover. Alcohol in non-carbonated beverages is absorbed more slowly than alcohol in carbonated drinks.

Retrograde extrapolation

Retrograde extrapolation is the mathematical process by which someone's blood alcohol concentration at the time of driving is estimated by projecting backwards from a later chemical test. This involves estimating the absorption and elimination of alcohol in the interim between driving and testing. The rate of elimination in the average person is commonly estimated at .015 to .020 percent per hour, although again this can vary from person to person and in a given person from one moment to another. Metabolism can be affected by numerous factors, including such things as body temperature, the type of alcoholic beverage consumed, and the amount and type of food consumed.

In an increasing number of states, laws have been enacted to facilitate this speculative task: the BAC at the time of driving is legally presumed to be the same as when later tested. There are usually time limits put on this presumption, commonly two or three hours, and the defendant is permitted to offer evidence to rebut this presumption.

Forward extrapolation can also be attempted. If the amount of alcohol consumed is known, along with such variables as the weight and sex of the subject and period and rate of consumption, the blood alcohol level can be estimated by extrapolating forward. Although subject to the same infirmities as retrograde extrapolation—guessing based upon averages and unknown variables—this can be relevant in estimating BAC when driving and/or corroborating or contradicting the results of a later chemical test.

Blood alcohol content calculation

BAC can be roughly estimated using a mathematical approach. Mathematical BAC estimations can be useful for calculating a BAC level that is not currently testable, or a level that may be present in the future. While there are several ways to calculate a BAC, one of the most effective ways is to simply measure the total amount of alcohol consumed divided by the total amount of water in the body—effectively giving the percent alcohol per volume water in the blood.

The total water weight of an individual can be calculated by multiplying his or her body weight by their percent water. For example, a 150 pound woman would have a total amount of water of 73.5 pounds (150 x .49). For easiest calculations, this weight should be in kilograms, which can be easily converted by dividing the total pounds by 2.205. 73.5 pounds of water is equivalent to 33.3 kilograms of water. 33.3 kilograms of water is equivalent to 33,300 mL of water (1 L of water has a mass of 1 kg, and 1 L = 1000 mL).

Gender plays an important role in the total amount of water that a person has. In general, men have a higher percent of water per pound (58%) than women (49%). This fact alone strongly contributes to the generalization that men require more alcohol than women to achieve the same BAC level. Additionally, men are, on average, heavier than women. The more water a person has, the more alcohol is required to achieve the same alcohol:blood ratio, or BAC level. Further, studies have shown that women's alcohol metabolism varies from that of men due to such biochemical factors as different levels of alcohol dehydrogenase (the enzyme which breaks down alcohol) and the effects of oral contraceptives.

It is not strictly accurate to say that the water content of a person alone is responsible for the dissolution of alcohol within the body, because alcohol does dissolve in fatty tissue as well. When it does, a certain amount of alcohol is temporarily taken out of the blood and briefly stored in the fat. For this reason, most calculations of alcohol to body mass simply use the weight of the individual, and not specifically his water content.

Notable cases of high blood alcohol levels

In November 2007, a driver was found passed out in her car in Oregon. A blood test showed her blood alcohol level was 0.550. She was charged with several offenses, including two counts of driving under the influence of an intoxicant, reckless endangerment of a person, criminal mischief and driving with a suspended license. Her bail was later set at $50,000 since she had several previous convictions for similar offenses.

In December 2007, a driver was arrested in Klamath County, Oregon after she was found unconscious in her car which was stuck in a snow bank with its engine running. Police were forced to break a car window to remove her. After realizing she was in alcohol induced-coma, they rushed her to the hospital where a blood test showed her blood alcohol level was 0.720. She reportedly was released from the hospital the next day. She was subsequently charged with drunk driving.

In July 2008, a driver was arrested after he ran into a highway message board on Interstate 95 in Providence, Rhode Islandmarker. A breath test showed his blood alcohol level was at 0.491 and he was raced to the hospital where he was sedated and placed in a detoxification unit. He was subsequently charged with driving while intoxicated and resisting arrest. He was later sentenced to one year probation, a $500 fine, 40 hours of community service and a one-year loss of his driver's license. The police later stated that his blood alcohol level was the highest they had ever seen for someone who hadn't died of alcohol poisoning. It was later estimated that the driver had consumed 10-14 drinks over the course of 1–2 hours., based on the standard levels of elimination which as documented previously can vary by up to 300%.

Highest recorded blood alcohol level/content

In December 2004, a man was admitted to the hospital in Plovdivmarker, Bulgariamarker after being struck by a car. After detecting a strong alcohol odour, doctors at a hospital conducted a breath test which displayed the man's blood alcohol content at 0.914% Concerned that their equipment was malfunctioning, doctors also performed five separate lab tests, all of which confirmed the man's incredible BAC. The man was treated for serious injuries sustained in the crash but survived. There have been cases reported in which individuals have supposedly survived BACs of over 1% but only limited information is available.

Notes

  1. The Chaves County, NM, page on Alcohol Intoxication reports that "0.10-0.125 BAC [indicates] Significant impairment of motor coordination and loss of good judgment. Speech may be slurred; balance, vision, reaction time and hearing will be impaired. Euphoria. [...] 0.13-0.15 BAC: Gross motor impairment and lack of physical control. [...] 0.25 BAC: Needs assistance in walking; total mental confusion."
  2. The Chaves County, NM, page on Alcohol Intoxication reports that "0.40 BAC and up [leads to] Onset of coma, possible death due to respiratory arrest."
  3. This was reported by CBC News in 2005 and referenced in a Novinite article about another Bulgarian who almost beat that so-called "record".
  4. A hybridizing of effects as described at Alcohol's Effects from Virginia Tech and Federal Aviation Regulation (CFR) 91.17: Alcohol and Flying (hosted on FlightPhysical.com)
  5. Based on the CDC standard of 0.6 fl. oz. alcohol per drink. CDC alcohol FAQ
  6. BAC Charts from Virginia Tech
  7. Information obtained from Alcotest 7410 GLC Calibrator's Manual. Last Amended October 2000 page 3A-6.
  8. This is according to Section 185 of Motor Vehicles Act 1988. On first offence, the punishment is imprisonment of 6 months and/or fine of 2000 Indian Rupees (INR). If the second offence is committed within three years, the punishment is 2 years and/or fine of 3000 Indian Rupees (INR). The clause of 30 mg/dL was added by an amendment in 1994. It came into effect beginning 14 November 1994.
  9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez?db=pubmed&cmd=Retrieve&dopt=AbstractPlus&list_uids=17729137 In June of 2002, a revision to part of the Road Traffic Act drastically increased the penalties for drinking and driving offences in Japan. Most notably, the legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit for driving was lowered from 0.05 mg/ml to 0.03 mg/ml.
  10. http://www.cbc.ca/canada/montreal/story/2009/11/30/quebec-alcohol-limit.html As slated for updating their rules to have 24 hour suspensions at 0.05%, and zero tolerance for those under the age of 22.
  11. untitled
  12. Carros de ebrios ‘saturan’ los planteles del MOPT (in Spanish). La Nacion
  13. Between 0.05% and 0.08%, drivers can be fined 135€ and have six points removed from their licence. Above 0.08% the punishment is more severe with possible imprisonment of up to two years, heavy fines and licence suspension. http://www2.securiteroutiere.gouv.fr/ressources/conseils/l-alcool-au-volant.html (in French)
  14. Criminal Code of Canada
  15. Drink driving offences in Ireland-Information from CitizensInformation.ie
  16. Driving In Singapore - Home
  17. Think!
  18. Drivers under 21 (the American drinking age), however, are held to stricter standards under zero tolerance laws. Adopted in varying forms in all states, these laws hold the driver to much lower BAC levels for criminal and/or license suspension purposes, commonly 0.01% to 0.05%. Many states have statutory regulations regarding driving while "under the influence" of an intoxicant and a different law for driving beyond the legal blood alcohol concentration.
  19. FindLaw for Legal Professionals - Case Law, Federal and State Resources, Forms, and Code
  20. http://www.sefeaa.gr/downloads/2009/KOK.pdf
  21. Paul M. Insel, R. Elaine Turner, Don Ross. Nutrition. Ontario, Canada: Jones and Bartlett, 2007. 291.
  22. http://alcalc.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/26/1/53
  23. Biological Effects of Alcohol Use, Michaele Dunlap, Psy.D
  24. DUI Suspect's 'Lethal Dose' Earns $50K Bail by David Schoetz, ABC News, December 28, 2007.
  25. Deputies: Woman Had 0.55% Blood Alcohol Level, KPTV News, December 27, 2007.
  26. Drunkest Driver Ever?, The Smoking Gun, January 10, 2008.
  27. Oregon Woman's Blood Alcohol Level Nine Times Legal Limit, Associated Press (reprinted by Fox News), January 10, 2008.
  28. R.I. Police Arrest Man With Record .491 Blood Alcohol Level, Associated Press (reprinted by Fox News), July 23, 2008.
  29. DUI suspect had highest alcohol level recorded By Richard C. Dujardin, The Providence Journal, July 23, 2008.
  30. Police: Driver's Blood Alcohol Level Highest Registered for Someone Not Dead, Fox News, October 07, 2008.
  31. Extreme Drunk Driving by Russell Goldman, ABC News, July 24, 2008.
  32. Bulgarian's blood-alcohol level astounds doctors, CBC News, January 4, 2005 (retrieved on March 16, 2009).
  33. Bulgarian Sets World Record for Highest Blood Alcohol Level, Sofia News Agency (Novinte.com), January 4, 2005 (retrieved on March 31, 2009).
  34. "The Drunkest Drinking Driver in Sweden: Blood Alcohol Concentration 0.545% W/v", an article by A. W. Jones published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol, volume 60, in the year of 1999 (link). Jones cites O'Neill et al., 1984, as the source of the information about the 30-year-old.


References

  • Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Science and Technology Department. The Handy Science Answer Book. Pittsburgh: The Carnegie Library, 1997. ISBN 9780787610135.
  • Perham, N. R., Moore, S. C., Shepherd, J. P. & Cusens, B. (2007). "Identifying drunkenness in the night time economy". Addiction, 102(3), 377–380.
  • Taylor, L., and S. Oberman. Drunk Driving Defense, 6th edition. New York: Aspen Law and Business, 2006. ISBN 978-0735554290.


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