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Belgian Man’s Drunken Driving Defense: His Body Made the Alcohol

One man was charged with drunken driving after crashing his truck and spilling 11,000 salmon onto a highway in Oregon. Another was secretly recorded by his wife, who was convinced he was a closet alcoholic. And in Belgium, a brewery worker was recently pulled over and given a breathalyzer test, which said that his blood alcohol level was more than four times the legal limit for drivers.

The problem? None of those men had been drinking.

Instead, they all were diagnosed with a rare condition known as auto-brewery syndrome, in which a person’s gut ferments carbohydrates into ethanol, effectively brewing alcohol inside the body.

This week, the man in Belgium was acquitted of a drunken driving offense — he wasn’t a boozer, the court found; his body was essentially making its own beer.

It’s the latest turn in the spotlight for the strange disorder, which periodically appears in a flurry of headlines after a particularly odd or egregious case. Most incidents involve accusations of drunken driving, when people who have the disorder, known as A.B.S., get behind the wheel of a car believing they are sober. Reactions to such defenses often range from admiring to dismissive, but medical doctors and science have long backed up that the strange condition does exist.

The condition has been studied in some capacity for more than a century. When a person with the syndrome ingests carbohydrates, fungi in their gastrointestinal tract converts it into ethanol. The process begets all the normal effects of inebriation — lack of coordination, memory loss, aggressive behavior — without the alcohol consumption.

Perhaps most confounding is that the disorder can cause blood-alcohol levels in people that would be lethal if achieved conventionally. One woman, who was pulled over in New York and breathalyzed after having a flat tire, measured 0.40, a level that is considered to be potentially fatal. While many people with the condition do exhibit the more traditional effects of alcohol consumption, others have been known to behave mostly sober, even when tests show they clearly are not.

In Belgium, the brewery worker — a 40-year-old man who wishes to remain anonymous, according to his lawyer — was pulled over by the police in April 2022 and registered a blood-alcohol reading that was more than four times the legal limit. A month later, he was pulled over again and registered more than three times the limit.

It was the third time the man had been cited — he had been pulled over and fined for driving under the influence in 2019. He was unaware that he had A.B.S. until his latest charge — tests administered by three doctors confirmed that he had the condition and validated his claim in court.

“I think he was somehow relieved that he finally knew what was up,” the man’s lawyer, Anse Ghesquiere, said. Her client is now following a strict diet and receiving medical treatment to avoid flare-ups and manage the condition.

While only a few dozen people across the world have been formally diagnosed with the condition, recent studies suggest that the condition is probably overlooked in others.

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