February 5, 2024

Breath Testing: A Historical Journey Unveiling Health Clues

Breath Testing: A Historical Journey Unveiling Health Clues

We all know how breath tests can be used to detect alcohol. But did you know, there are also many other forms of breath testing? For decades, healthcare practitioners have known that our exhaled breath contains valuable information about our health. But now, it can also be used to actively monitor our exposure to harmful substances in the workplace. Read on to learn the history of breath testing and to see how this plays a role controlling health risks on the job.

Early Developments: Tracing the Roots of Breath Testing

Breath testing can be traced back to the ancient Greek physician, Hippocrates (around 400 BC). He educated his students on using breath odor to spot patients with liver disease, uncontrolled diabetes, and failing kidneys.  A few additional significant moments in the history of breath lead us to the present day. The 'modern era' of breath analysis started around forty years ago with studies led by Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling and his colleagues, uncovering the presence of 250 VOCs in an average breath sample.  Modern techniques mean we can now detect more than 3500 VOCs in breath.

The Role of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) in Breath Tests

Breath holds vital information about our health and body functions, allowing collection of key biomarkers in a non-invasive biomarker and repeatable manner.  This technique focuses on the gaseous volatile organic compounds (VOCs) produced by metabolic reactions in your body. Researchers have shown that it can help identify various conditions, including infection, cancer, metabolic issues, and inflammation.

Technological Advancements

Breath analysis technology has evolved and become ever more accurate. Early on, healers recognized the significance of breath odors, drawing insights into an individual's health. The 20th century witnessed a pivotal shift with the advent of breath analysis for alcohol detection, exemplified by the introduction of the breathalyzer. 

There are two key approaches to breath analysis. The first includes techniques designed for simplicity, speed and cost-effectiveness. This includes innovative methods like breath biopsy tests and electronic nose and sensors. The second involves techniques looking for range, accuracy, and precision. This includes technologies like chromatography and mass spectrometry. However, these approaches come with substantial cost and complexity. 

Electronic Nose (eNose) - Decoding Breath Patterns

The Electronic Nose (eNose) uses sensor arrays to detect and analyze VOCs in breath. This technique is widely applied in disease diagnosis and environmental monitoring. It identifies unique VOC patterns, contributing to early disease detection and pinpointing specific compounds in the environment. The eNose offers a quick and non-invasive way to glean valuable information about both our health and the environment through breath analysis. However, each eNose can only detect a very small number of compounds, and so it cannot be used for general testing.

Ion Mobility Spectrometry (IMS) - Precision in Breath Analysis

Ion Mobility Spectrometry (IMS) is a high-tech method used in breath analysis. It separates ions based on their movement in a gas with an electric field. IMS helps identify and measure different substances in breath. In medical diagnostics, IMS plays a vital role in spotting specific markers in exhaled breath, contributing to advancements in breath analysis for health purposes.

Selected Ion Flow Tube Mass Spectrometry (SIFT-MS) - Real-Time Breath Insights

Selected Ion Flow Tube Mass Spectrometry (SIFT-MS) is a contemporary analytical approach that swiftly identifies various compounds in breath by introducing ions into a gas stream, allowing for real-time and precise measurements. SIFT-MS is particularly valuable in medical research for detecting VOCs in exhaled breath, providing insights into metabolic processes and potential health markers. 

Secondary Electro Spray Ionization Spectrometry (SESI-MS) - Best of Breed Breath Analysis

SESI, or Secondary Electrospray Ionization, is a modern technology used in breath analysis, particularly for detecting biologically significant metabolites non-invasively. SESI, when combined with mass spectrometry (SESI-MS), provides several advantages, such as low detection limits and the ability to detect low volatility species, which are often more biologically significant. This technology, which we use at Diagnose Early, is gaining attention for its applications in real-time, non-invasive metabolomic profiling, offering painless procedures for patients. SESI-MS has shown promise in various clinical applications, including biomarker discovery and drug monitoring​

Preventative Breath Testing: Safeguarding Firefighters' Health

Modern structure fires release a toxic cocktail of substances that can enter the body through inhalation, skin contact, or contact with mucous membranes. This means firefighters encounter hundreds of hazardous chemicals in the forms of gasses, vapors, and particles. Many of these substances are proven or suspected to be carcinogenic.

In 2022, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classed firefighting as one of the only carcinogenic occupations in the world. Indeed, occupational cancer among firefighters stands as the predominant cause of line-of-duty deaths within the fire service. The sobering reality was underscored at the 2023 IAFF Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial, where a striking 72% of IAFF member line-of-duty deaths in 2023 were due to occupational cancer. 

This alarming statistic highlights the critical need for innovative approaches to safeguard the health and well-being of those who courageously serve in the fire service. Breath analysis can be used to identify which toxins a firefighter has been exposed to, thus allowing prompt intervention and protecting the well-being of firefighters. The integration of breath testing into firefighting safety protocols exemplifies its diverse and impactful applications in enhancing occupational health and safety.

What's Next for Breath Testing

Research already suggests that breath analysis may allow earlier detection of certain cancers or diseases. However, there is a long road from academic research to widely-available clinical tests. Meanwhile, breath testing is already starting to change healthcare. One company has developed a breath test to allow children with epilepsy to receive the correct dose of valproic acid. Meanwhile, advances in AI promise a future where breath analysis can be used for widespread screening and early detection. 

Unlocking the Power of Breath Tests

Regular breath tests can help track changes over time and contribute to a better understanding of environmental and workplace influences on overall health. This heightened awareness can contribute to early detection of potential health risks and facilitate informed decision-making regarding lifestyle, environment, and overall well-being. For firefighters, this could be a true game changer. This is why Diagnose Early has developed testing focused on the toxins that directly affect firefighters in their dangerous job. To learn more, visit our firefighter landing page.


Helping firefighters

to understand the health risks related to toxin exposure