By Alexandra Brumberg
Everyone has heard that quality comes at a price. In a never-ending effort to lower costs, quality is, therefore, the first thing to go even though it might actually be worth the price. Recently, methanol—the same chemical that is found in antifreeze and drain cleaner—has become popular as a replacement for ethanol in alcoholic beverages. Although the alcohol produces a similar buzz to that of ethanol, the effects that come later are horrific and, unfortunately, often deadly.
In a recent case (as reported by the Daily Mail Online), Kate McCormick and Laura Livanou—two British lawyers—were on vacation in Bali when they fell ill after having had vodka Red Bulls at a local bar. After making it back to their hotels, they began to throw up—the beginning of symptoms that lasted over a week. Kate noted that "even turning over in bed or just moving our head would make us sick. We felt dizzy and disoriented, too, and had to lie very still." The intense sickness, accompanied by pounding headaches, lasted for two days. However, it took an additional week to fully recover.
Luckily for them, Kate and Laura's symptoms were rather tame in comparison to what could have happened. A lethal dose of methanol is 100-200 mL, roughly the same as the alcohol content in six shots of vodka. Kate and Laura only had four shots, a decision that led to their survival. Had they had more, they would have died, or, at the very least, suffered permanent internal damage.
Cheznye Emmons, a British backpacker vacationing in Sumatra, was not so lucky. She died five days after consuming fruit punch made from a locally purchased bottle of gin that had been tainted with methanol. The morning after drinking the fruit punch, Cheznye lost her eyesight. Although she made it to a hospital, she died in a drug-induced coma five days after the lethal drink.
Cheznye's symptoms are among the more common effects of methanol poisoning. Side effects range from headaches—as Kate and Laura described—and overall sickness to more severe symptoms such as blindness, seizures, breathing difficulties, comas, kidney failure, and, as in Cheznye's case, death. Once a patient falls into a coma or has a seizure, there is only a 20% chance of survival.
The structures of methanol and ethanol, respectively, shown to differ by only a few atoms.
As previously mentioned, ethanol and methanol initially appear to be indistinguishable from one another. However, due to the production of formic acid, methanol poisoning sets in 40 minutes to 72 hours after ingestion. When formic acid builds up, it interferes with the central nervous system, including the optic nerve, the nerve responsible for transmitting messages between the eye and the brain. Because of this, blindness is the biggest risk from the poisoning apart from death. Hospitals will employ either dialysis or a methanol antidote that prevents the production of formic acid in order to help treat the sickness.
The recent surge of methanol poisonings is mainly due to the rising price of alcohol. Governments push up prices in an attempt to lower consumption, but that in turn encourages riskier methods of obtaining alcohol. Illegally, methanol is either mixed into or completely replaces the ethanol in alcoholic drinks. Although the number of methanol poisonings has risen 500% in the UK in the last year, with 250 million bottles of counterfeited alcohol taken by customs officials in the EU, the numbers are not as concerning as those related to alcohol abuse.
In comparison to the yearly 2.3 million deaths from alcohol abuse, methanol poisoning appears to be a lesser evil with only a couple hundred deaths in 2012 (World Health Organization). According to Vladimir Poznyak from the World Health Organization, the issue is not out of hand.
However, the risk of poisoning abroad is still very real. Dr. Sarah Jarvis from Drinkaware, a British organization that works to promote alcohol awareness and responsible drinking, warns that "if a deal looks too good to be true, it almost certainly is." Kate and Laura chose vodka Red Bulls because they were cheaper than the alternatives, and they are lucky to be alive. Don't let cost ruin your vacation; in certain situations, it is worth paying the higher price in order to save your life.
World Health Organization:
Application to Include Fomepizole on the WHO Model List of Essential Medicines
Daily Mail Online
Could your holiday cocktail cost you your life? A toxic ingredient in cheap foreign drinks is poisoning unsuspecting tourists
Methanol Image URL:
Ethanol Image URL:
Alexandra Brumberg is currently a student at Tufts University studying chemistry and mathematics, two of her strongest passions. Among her other interests are tap dancing, which she has been doing since the age of three, and downhill skiing. She is a choreographer for the Tufts Tap Ensemble and races with the Tufts University ski team. She is thrilled to be able to combine her loves for science and writing as part of the Scientista blogging team!
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