Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a common disease that affects approximately 25 to 30 percent of the U.S. population. GERD is a chronic condition that results from esophagus deterioration from stomach acid eruptions over time. Mark Scott and Aimee R. Gelhot, Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease: Diagnosis and Management, 59 Am.Fam. Physician 1161 (1999) (available online at www.aafp.org/afp/990301ap/1161.html). The impact on breath testing is whether alcohol erupting from the stomach into the mouth from gastric reflux (generally a silent response) poses a problem with accurate breath testing during a 20-minute deprivation period. Research has been minimal to nonexistent on this issue. Research conducted to try to mimic gastric reflux is problematic because of a very small non-representative population (ten people or less) sample, and some researchers used a compression belt to invoke eruption, in contrast to spontaneous and natural eruption.
In People v. Bonutti, ___ Ill.App.3d ___, 788 N.E.2d 331, 273 Ill.Dec. 22 (5th Dist. 2003), expert testimony identified that the defendant had suffered from GERD since 1992 and was being treated for the condition. The expert testified that alcohol, coffee, and carbonated drinks dilate the stomach and the lower esophageal sphincter. The reflux is silent, and regurgitation and reflux are synonymous. In Bonutti, the trial court properly suppressed the breath test when the defendant testified that he refluxed during the 20-minute observation period. However, the trial court properly declined to rescind the statutory summary suspension where the State rebutted the defendant’s claim the breath test was invalid.
In the State of Washington, the Washington State Patrol examined the issue of GERD and concluded safeguards should be implemented for fair and accurate breath testing. Their conclusions for proper breath alcohol testing suggested a sound forensic practice should be followed to ensure the integrity of the breath test and GERD recognition. The safeguards should include the following: at least a 15-minute pre-sample observation period, duplicate testing, instrument detection of mouth alcohol, trained and alert operators that ask appropriate questions, and visual observations looking for symptoms of GERD. Rod G. Gullberg, Breath Alcohol Analysis in One Subject with Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease. 46 J. Forensic Sci. 1498 (2001).
The problem in most breath testing programs is lack of training on GERD, absence of duplicate testing, and that pre-evidentiary test questions do not include information about GERD. In one Midwest state police program, a breath testing instructor testified that he purposely avoids the GERD issue in his breath test training program. The use of a continuous 20-minute observation period is supported again. An officer should be prohibited from driving a car, reading paperwork, turning his or her back on the defendant, and leaving the room during the 20-minute deprivation period. Anything other than continuous 20-minute observation should be prohibited to help ensure the integrity of the breath test. General compliance for a person who suffers from GERD is not acceptable.
Dr. Ronald Henson, Ph.D., C.P.C.T.