Celebrating Rolla Harger, the Drunkometer, and increased safety on the road

We’re commemorating the birthday today of Professor Rolla Neil Harger (14 Jan 1890 – 8 Aug 1983), an American biochemist and toxicologist who in 1938 developed the first practically useful machine for testing human breath alcohol content – quite aptly named the ‘Drunkometer’.

Harger’s invention wasn’t the first attempt at determining alcohol content by analysing a person’s breath – the concept dates back to as early as 1874, and earlier systems were developed by Emil Bogen and W McNalley in the 1920’s. What makes the Drunkometer a breakthrough in breath testing was its portability and improved accuracy over previous systems.

In Professor Harger’s system, the test subject blew into a balloon, and from there the breath sample is pumped through acidified potassium permanganate, which changed colour in the presence of alcohol. The more alcohol present, the greater the change in colour, so using a calibrated colour chart it was possible to fairly accurately determine the alcohol in a breath sample, and through that, calculate blood alcohol levels.

Drunk driving - putting yourself and your fellow road users at risk.(© All Rights Reserved)
Drunk driving – putting yourself and your fellow road users at risk.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Since the Drunkometer, breathalyser testing have improved steadily, with current systems , based primarily on infrared spectroscopy or electrochemical fuel cell technology, providing highly consistent and accurate results. What makes the breathalyser a very useful tool in law enforcement is its non-invasiveness – it indirectly measures blood alcohol levels, as opposed to direct measurement which requires a blood sample to be taken for analysis. Being non-invasive, it is an ideal tool to do preliminary alcohol screening – if the result indicates alcohol levels above the legal limit, it can be followed up by a blood test for conviction purposes.

Of course even the modern breathalyser is not perfect, and it has been reported that the results of a breath alcohol test can be manipulated to some extent by vigorous exercise or hyperventilation. But then again, if you’re inebriated well beyond the legal limit your ability to engage in sufficiently vigorous exercise is questionable, and if you try to hyperventilate, you’re more likely to pass out than pass the breathalyser test, so practically speaking it is unlikely that a drunk driver will be able to manipulate his test too much.

Bottom line – any device that can be even partially successful in getting drunk drivers off the road gets my vote, so kudos to Professor Harger and his Drunkometer for leading the way in alcohol breath analysis.

And while we’re on the subject – three cheers for the law enforcement officials who spent the festive season on the roads sorting out drunk drivers and other offenders, enabling the rest of us to enjoy our holidays safely and return home stress-free.

World Rhino Day and the atrocity of rhino poaching

Today, 22 September 2012, marks the third annual World Rhino Day. Individuals and organisations across the globe, including the WWF, will join with citizens in rhinoceros range countries in standing up against the atrocity of rhino poaching.

An extensive range of activities are planned to celebrate the event, including skydives, cycling competitions, fun walks and runs, music concerts and even sandcastle building contests, all to raise funds and awareness for the plight of these majestic animals.

An awareness bracelet, sold in South Africa to collect funds to support the fight against rhino poaching.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Rhino poaching has reached shocking levels. In South Africa, one of the worst hit countries in the world, almost 1400 rhinos have been lost since 2008, and despite attempts at curbing the problem, the numbers are increasing daily. According to the latest statistics 388 rhinos have already been killed in 2012 alone. Policing the crime is extremely difficult, as it involves patrolling vast areas of land, and dealing with criminals that are ruthless, mobile and flexible, and that can strike at any time. To stand any chance of addressing the problem, focus needs to fall on infiltrating and cracking poaching syndicates, and building up reliable informant networks. Unfortunately the challenge doesn’t stop there – there have been numerous reports of game wardens and law enforcers being part of the poaching syndicates, thus counter-acting and nullifying the efforts spent on intelligence building.

Are we the last generation who will have the privilege of seeing scenes like this in the African wild?
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Continued poaching is a symptom of larger societal problems such as unemployment and poverty, and a long as these remain, and there remains a lucrative market for rhino horns, stopping the poaching is nigh impossible. Sadly there is a growing demand for rhino horn in Asia, where it is used as traditional medicine.  As Dr Morne du Plessis, CEO of WWF South Africa, has pointed out, “Asian and African governments must work together to disrupt trade chains and to bring wildlife criminals to justice. Demand for rhino horn and elephant ivory is threatening to destroy a large part of Africa’s natural heritage. We want to see illegal markets for these products in Asia shut down for good.”

According to Dr. Joseph Okori, WWF’s African Rhino Programme Manager, “Rangers are putting their lives on the line to protect these animals from poachers and traders who are motivated only by greed. We salute all those working tirelessly to secure a future for rhinos, and we call on government leaders in Vietnam and China to do their part.”

Rhino poaching is one of the truly horrific crimes against nature committed by man, and it is shocking that it is continuing at such levels in this day and age. One can only hope that somehow, somewhere authorities will be able to find a solution if there is to be any hope of these proud animals being saved for future generations.