ClearMate helps people sober up faster by sucking alcohol from their breath

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ClearMate helps people sober up faster.
Image: University Health Network

It would be great if you could instantly sober up after a night of partying. Everyone has their own hangover cure, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be easier to not get hungover in the first place. A simple new machine called the ClearMate could help with that.

Researchers from Canada claim that the device is able to pull alcohol out of your breath to help people get sober up to three times faster. The team says it could be a lifesaving intervention for patients with alcohol poisoning.

Breathe In, Breathe Out

Most people are familiar with the fact that alcohol is processed in the liver. Although this organ does a tremendous job of clearing the alcohol from your body, it does so at a steady rate. In other words, you can’t speed up how fast your body processes the toxins.

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When someone arrives at the hospital with a potentially fatal case of alcohol poisoning, doctors are forced to keep them as stable as possible while waiting for the liver to do its job. However, this delay can lead to poor outcomes in patients who are severely intoxicated.

What most people don’t know is that the lungs also play a small role in eliminating alcohol from your system. When blood containing alcohol reaches the lungs, some of the alcohol escapes during each exhale. Although this is much less efficient than processing alcohol in the liver, researchers believe it could be a lifesaver.

When a person hyperventilates, or breathes more rapidly than normal, alcohol can be cleared more quickly. Unfortunately, hyperventilating for an extended period of time causes its own problems. Since the body loses too much carbon dioxide in the process, hyperventilating often makes people pass out.

That’s where the ClearMate comes into play.

Meet the ClearMate

In order to use the lungs as an effective secondary route of alcohol clearance, the researchers had to get creative. They built a machine that sidesteps the body’s natural defenses against hyperventilating in a safe and effective manner.

First, a simple oxygen mask is put onto the intoxicated person. This is connected to a supply of both oxygen and carbon dioxide. That might sound surprising considering that inhaling carbon dioxide isn’t usually a good thing. However, remember that hyperventilation causes people to lose a lot of carbon dioxide. In this case, replacing some is actually an important part of the process.

Breathing in carbon dioxide also causes the person to hyperventilate without them having to do so manually. This takes advantage of another body mechanism. When carbon dioxide levels are too high, hyperventilation occurs naturally. By artificially raising the levels, the ClearMate can force a person to hyperventilate without causing the symptoms associated with low carbon dioxide levels.

Joseph Fisher, one of the researchers and authors of a recent study covering the work, says, “With each breath, it [the ClearMate] is designed to allow the normal amount of carbon dioxide to escape and any excess is returned on the very next breath.”

“This is all done in a simple way by a mechanical valve so it is foolproof—without needing electronics or computers,” he adds.

The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Testing Success

During the development process, Fisher and his team worked with a handful of healthy volunteers. They were told to drink 80-proof vodka mixed with water until they were mildly intoxicated.

The researchers then observed the participants as they sobered up naturally. Afterward, they repeated the experiment, this time having them use the ClearMate for up to 30 minutes. During each trial, the researchers monitored participants’ blood alcohol levels with both a breathalyzer and direct blood samples.

The team found that when participants used the ClearMate they sobered up three times faster than they did naturally.

Although the small sample size might make people wary, this isn’t ClearMate’s first successful demonstration. Last year, Fisher’s company, Thornhill Medical, was granted approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that allows the machine to be used in emergency rooms. It currently serves as a treatment for carbon monoxide poisoning.

However, Fisher and his team believe that the applications go much further than that.

They say that the machine could also be used to treat patients who have ingested methanol (such as by drinking windshield washer fluid) or polyethelene glycol (from homemade alcohol). Given the fact that those conditions can be deadly if not treated appropriately, the ClearMate has the potential to save lives.

Interestingly, Fisher notes that the team’s approach isn’t novel. Scientists have known that some alcohol can be cleared by the lungs for almost a century. However, it seems that no one has thought to utilize the mechanism until now.

He says, “The method is so simple and obvious that even looking at it, no one recognizes its potential. Hiding in plain sight. I don’t know how else to explain it.”

Real-World Use

Moving forward, the ClearMate will need to gain FDA approval before it can be used as a treatment for alcohol poisoning. However, the results are promising so far. Should the machine get the green light, it could quickly become a staple in emergency rooms, intensive care units, and ambulances across the world.

Of course, consumers are wondering if the ClearMate will ever make it to them. For now, the answer is no.

Although the machine appears to the effective, it needs to be closely monitored to be used safely. That means a group of drunk friends shouldn’t be using it on each other. While the idea of sobering up much faster is great, a device like the ClearMate probably isn’t going to hit the consumer market for some time—if ever.

That being said, there is a possibility that someone could develop a similar technology that’s geared towards consumers. As Fisher said, the method has been hiding in plain sight for years. There could certainly be a way to make the technique safe enough for everyday people.

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