Scientists dip toes into an old alcohol myth


It’s not unusual to hear about someone figuratively jumping into their work with both feet. Dr. Peter Lommer Kristensen did it literally.

Kristensen, of the Hillerod Hospital in Hillerod, Denmark, and two of his colleagues investigated an old Danish myth that it is possible to get drunk by immersing your feet in alcohol.

To do so, they soaked their feet in a washtub containing three bottles of vodka for three hours. They measured blood concentrations of alcohol every half-hour and rated themselves on a scale of 0 to 10 on self-confidence, urge to speak and the number of times they desired spontaneous hugs.


The trio reported in the Christmas issue of the journal BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) that they found no evidence of absorption of alcohol — and concluded that driving a vehicle or skippering a boat with boots full of vodka seems to be safe and that brewery workers cannot become intoxicated by falling into a brewery vat.

Kristensen noted that it was important that the myth undergo scientific scrutiny to prevent students wasting their time experimenting with this activity.

The journal, which at this time each year devotes an issue to holiday-themed research, also featured an article testing the effects of alcohol on the consumption of a rich meal, specifically a cheese fondue. Dr. Mark Fox, now at Queens Medical Center in Nottingham, England, and colleagues at the University Hospital of Zurich recruited 20 healthy adults between 23 and 58 and fed them a rich fondue accompanied by either wine or black tea. They had no trouble recruiting volunteers.

The team, which used well-known tests to monitor digestion, found that the alcohol slowed the process by about 50%. Those who ate the fondue and drank tea took about six hours to digest the fondue, while those who consumed wine took about nine hours to digest it. The latter group did not suffer any increase in indigestion problems, however.

The results should be generally applicable to any large, rich meal, Fox said.

Some other items from the BMJ holiday special:

•Surgeons use a variety of felt-tipped pencils for marking bones to be cut during facial and head surgery. But it turns out that the little pencil stolen from Ikea stores is better than all of them, according to Dr. Karen Eley of the University of Oxford and Dr. Stephen Watt-Smith of John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford.

The Ikea pencil more readily makes a mark on bone and the mark is less likely to be washed away by irrigation and tissue fluids, they said. The biggest problem is that repeated sterilization has a tendency to split the pencils. This problem can be mitigated by wrapping silicon cuffs around the pencils, they said, but added that perhaps the designers at Ikea could find a better solution.


•According to some doctors, redheads should be very popular with vampires because they bleed more profusely. Redheads also have a reputation for a reduced pain threshold and a propensity to develop hernias. The reaction of Dr. Jonathan Barry of Morriston Hospital in Swansea, Chelsea: “Rubbish.”

Barry and his colleagues did a thorough literature search for evidence about peculiarities of redheads and found no evidence to support these anecdotes. Overall, about 1% to 2% of the global population has red hair, rising to about 2% to 6% in the Northern Hemisphere. In Scotland, as much as 13% of the population are redheads.

Some small studies, Barry said, suggest that people with red hair may need more anesthetic during surgery and that they are slightly more sensitive to heat and cold pain. Beyond that, however, there is no evidence that they are at any greater risk during surgery than the general population.

•And finally, French researchers have identified what they believe to be the head of the French King Henry IV, who was assassinated at age 57 on May 14, 1610. He was buried in the Royal Basilica of St. Denis in Paris, but the graves there were destroyed by revolutionaries in 1793 and the head snatched.

A team led by Dr. Philippe Charlier of University Hospital R. Poincare in Garches, France, spent nine months examining the recently discovered skull. Radiocarbon dating showed it was the right age, and a digital facial reconstruction was consistent with known paintings of the monarch and a plaster cast of his face made just after his death. The researchers also found features corresponding to a dark lesion above his right nostril, seen in portraits, and a stab wound in his upper left jaw.

The head will be reburied in the Basilica of St. Denis.