1. Ten healthy men each drank a moderate dose of ethanol in experiments to test if the temperature and moisture content of inhaled air could alter the concentration of ethanol in exhaled breath.
2. They breathed air at various temperatures and relative humidities (RH) for about 1 min before the concentration of ethanol and the temperature of end-expired breath were determined. Control breaths were analysed after the same men breathed ordinary room air (23°C, 55% RH). All tests were made during the postabsorptive phase of ethanol metabolism and the breath samples were analysed by gas-liquid chromatography.
3. When the men breathed cold dry air (5°C, 0% RH), the expired ethanol concentration decreased by 9·6 ± 0·69% (mean ± se) and breath temperature dropped by 1·40 ± 0·08°C. Cold moist air (5°C, 100% RH) decreased breath ethanol concentration by 6·4 ± 1·02% and breath temperature dropped by 1·1 ± 0·07°C. With hot dry air (80°C, 0% RH) as the breathing medium the concentration of ethanol was lowered by 4·3 ± 1·27% but expired breath temperatures were unchanged from the control tests. On breathing hot moist air (50°C, 100% RH), breath ethanol concentrations decreased by 10·3 ± 0·59%, even though breath temperatures rose by 1·8 ± 0·14°C above that of the controls.
4. Ethanol dissolves in the watery mucous membrane of the upper respiratory tract and can equilibrate with inhaled and exhaled air. It seems likely that during exchanges of heat and water vapour between respired air and the mucus, which largely depends on the temperature and humidity of inhaled air, the equilibrium of ethanol at the breath/mucus interface becomes disrupted. This leads to changes in the concentration of ethanol in expired air.