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Happy New Year – Make sure my drinks are radioactive!

December 31, 2009

I couldn’t figure out a place to put this physics fun fact in the blog until today! In “Physics for Future Presidents” I read:

Chapter 3 – Nukes

Alcohol is radioactive too-at least the kind we drink. Rubbing alcohol usually isn’t, unless it was made organically that is, from wood. In fact, the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives test wine, gin, whiskey, and vodka for radioactivity. A fifth of whiskey must emit at least 400 beta rays every minute or the drink is considered unfit for human consumption.

Chapter 9 – Radioactive Decay

In the United States, alcohol for consumption must be made from fruits, grain, or other plants. Making it from petroleum is illegal. Any alcohol made by the fermentation of plant matter contains recent, radioactive carbon-14. In contrast, petroleum was created by decaying vegetable matter that was buried 300 million years ago. That means that petroleum was formed from living matter that died more than 50,000 carbon-14 half-lives ago. No detectable carbon-14 remains in it. This absence provides an easy way for the US government to test whether alcohol has been produced from petroleum. The US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives test alcoholic beverages for carbon-14. If the expected level of radioactivity is present, then the beverage passes the test. If the alcohol is not radioactive, then the testers know that it was not made from grain or fruit, and is deemed unfit for human consumption. 17

For the same reason, biofuels-made from corn, sugarcane, or other farmed crops-are also radioactive, whereas fossil fuels are not. The natural radioactivity of the carbon-14 in fossil fuels has long since decayed away. Radiation from biofuels is too weak for it to offer any danger, but it does provide an easy test to see if the fuel is truly made from crops.

I talked to my dad and kept asking, “Why does this really matter? What’s the difference to my health if I drank something that was or was not radioactive? I think either way the alcohol is created should have equal effects on the body.” Dad said, “I think it’s probably for tax purposes.”

I asked him that again and his answer still didn’t register with me until now…. I noticed the #17 and looked it up in the notes.  Check this out:


17. There is no physical or biological reason to consider such alcohol more dangerous. The rule was probably put in place to keep drinking alcohol expensive. That reduces consumption, and helps some farmers.


Enjoy thinking about that when you are drinking tonight!


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