What's in a blood alcohol level?
October 26th, 2011
05:50 PM ET

What's in a blood alcohol level?

The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday recommended the legal limit for driving drunk be lowered from .08 blood-alcohol content to .05 in an effort to reduce alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes, which kill about 10,000 people a year.

Your blood-alcohol level can vary depending on your age, weight, previous alcohol and drug experience and the type of alcohol being consumed.

"You can drink alcohol faster than you can remove it from your body and that's when your blood-alcohol level goes up," says Robert Pandina, Ph.D., and the director of the Center for Alcohol Studies at Rutgers University.

According to the Mayo Clinic, it takes the body roughly one hour to metabolize a single drink but the definition of what constitutes a drink changes depending on the alcohol. A drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor.

"If you keep drinking alcohol, it's not going to get metabolized any faster just because you've consumed more of it," explains Pandina. "Metabolism happens at a fixed rate until all the alcohol is processed."

Pandina calculates that a woman weighing approximately 110 pounds would have to drink between 12 and 13 ounces of 80-proof liquor in an hour to reach a blood-alcohol level of 0.40.

"It's still a lot but it's far less than people may imagine," says Pandina.

A person may need medical attention with a blood-alcohol level under 0.2. Vital functions may start to shut down before someone reaches 0.25. Death is possible with a blood-alcohol level of 0.3. And that's without prior liver damage from previous alcohol or drug use. A person with a damaged liver is at higher risk for catastrophic or fatal alcohol poisoning because his or her  liver cannot effectively metabolize the alcohol.

"The message is very simply when you know someone has been drinking and drinking heavily, don't wait," says Pandina. "It's quite possible to revive individuals even at very high alcohol levels and keep them from having catastrophic effects."

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