Diabetes and alcohol: is it a factor in Deputy Mayor Redon’s DWI?

On Wednesday night, March 19th, Rochester’s Deputy Mayor was pulled over for doing 70 in a 55 and later found by a breathalyzer to have a .13BAC. He was arrested for DWI, speeding and also for an unrelated expired inspection. On Thursday, spox for the Mayor’s Office made the statement that “alcohol and diabetes don’t mix,” per @ashleyzilka of News 8:

Reports go on to state that Redon was recently diagnosed with diabetes, the potential explanation for the arrest being that perhaps being newly diagnosed, he may not have known what the consequences of drinking would be. @rachbarnhart summed up nicely:

I was diagnosed diabetic about five or six years ago. And with the necessary caveat that I am certainly not a doctor, I think I can add a bit of context to the situation. But there’s a lot to parse, here:

  1. Is Redon Type I or Type II?
  2. How does having diabetes affect drinking alcohol?
  3. Can you, as suggested by one source, test positive for intoxication without being drunk when you are a diabetic?

On the issue of whether Redon is Type I or II, we can certainly make the educated guess that he’s Type II. Type I, or juvenile diabetes, is usually diagnosed when a person is young. I don’t think I’ve encountered anyone who told me they were diagnosed with Type I later in life, only Type II.

Also worth noting that he appears to have lost some weight. That’s a pretty classic sign of late-diagnosis diabetes.

The type of diabetes is significant for two main reasons. The first is that Type II diabetics, at least of the untreated variety, have a problem with too much glucose in the blood stream, not too little. With treatment, however, the short-term effect is an extremely wonky blood sugar level that does fluctuate pretty wildly. So it is entirely plausible that a recently-diagnosed, recently medicated person can experience sudden drops in blood glucose.

But the second, related reason Type II diabetes is significant is because those sudden drops in glucose are scary as hell. Imagine going from perfectly sober to three-shots-of-tequila buzzed in about five minutes – without drinking – and you’ll see what I mean. Even if you are “used” to that feeling, it still causes panic attacks, because low blood sugar and anxiety are also related. My thinking is that most people would just pull over and panic, not speed up to 70.

Our second question is equally important. How does alcohol affect diabetics? While it is true that alcohol generally lowers blood suger, the real answer isn’t quite that straight forward. One important clue is what you drank. Brews and ferments like beer and wine tend to have enormously high levels of sugar and carbs, which means that in the short term, your blood sugar levels will go up, not down. Distilled spirits like vodka or whiskey have exceptionally low sugar content, and therefore are likely to lower your blood sugar.

So, the closest thing to a straight answer is that, if Redon had a beer or two, he would not have appeared drunk. If he had hard alcohol, well,.. maybe.

The final, and to me most intriguing, question is the whether a person can fail a breathalyzer test because they have low blood sugar? Is that really possible? Like a lot of lawyer tricks, this comes down to a pretty ambiguous “maybe.” There is scientific data to back up the basic claim, so let’s start there.

Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, occurs in all people, not just diabetics. When hypoglycemia happens, the body turns to alternative fuel sources. It begins converting fatty acids in the body into acetone, among other chemicals, which can be used by the brain as a fuel source. This condition is called Ketosis.

In this state, a breathalyzer will recognize the acetone incorrectly as alcohol.  According to one study, subjects tested showed as much as a .06 BAC which was actually acetone, not alcohol:

Hypoglycemia as a cause of acetone in the breath is well known and research has demonstrated that diabetics can have levels of acetone in the breath sufficiently high to register false readings of .06.

However, here come the caveats.

First, while hypoglycemia happens to everyone, Ketosis does not. It takes a fairly sustained or routine lowering of blood sugar for your body to hit the panic button like that. Wikipedia notes specifically that ketosis is more common among Type I diabetics. That makes sense, because they have been struggling with blood sugar for their entire lives. It’s worth noting here that it is the acetone created by ketosis that causes diabetics to go into comas, not the lowered blood sugar itself. So in order for Mr. Redon to have shown signs of ketosis, he would have had to be well past the point of being able to drive.

Finally and most damagingly to his case, while acetone could potentially get read as alcohol in a breathalyzer, the study I link to above only shows an increased reading of .06BAC. Mr. Redon’s breathalyzer came in at .13BAC. If we subtract our “handicap,” we still come out at .07, which would still get you a DUI. And of course, he has admitted to drinking, anyway.

Drinking and driving is no joke. Diabetes is no joke. Mayor Warren has not had a good run so far, and this isn’t even her appointment. But trying to paper over wrong doing by spreading misinformation about diabetes is not going to help anyone.

By Tommy Belknap

Owner, developer, editor of DragonFlyEye.Net, Tom Belknap is also a freelance journalist for The 585 lifestyle magazine. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife and son.