Methanol poisoning: What is it exactly?
Thus far 60 men have been reported as victims of alcohol poisoning, of which, 23 men have lost their lives through consuming alcoholic beverages while 17 of them are still warded as their condition is critical.
It was reported by the Ministry of Health yesterday that amongst the victims, they have had consumed compounded hard liquor from one of these three brands, namely
- Mandalay Whiskey
- Kingfisher Beer
- Grand Royal Whiskey
The Director-General of Health also mentioned that these victims displayed the early signs of methanol poisoning.
So how did these victims get poisoned by alcohol? What is this mysterious methanol and what has it got to do with alcohol poisoning? How do I know if I have been poisoned?
Read on to find out!
Ethanol vs. Methanol
All right folks, let us go back to basic chemistry and define what exactly is alcohol. Alcohol, is any organic compound that contains an -OH hydroxyl group.
As for most people on the street, alcohol that we consume, is actually ethanol, a type of alcohol with 2 carbon atoms, 5 hydrogen atoms and 1 -OH hydroxyl group. Ethanol is responsible for all the silly things that you do when you get drunk. It is still poisonous at very high levels of consumption, but levels consumed recreationally is generally safe from poisoning (but still dangerous if one drinks and drive).
Methanol on the other hand contains 1 carbon atom, 2 hydrogen atoms and 1 -OH hydroxyl group. Methanol in itself is not very toxic, however, when consumed, our body breaks it down into compounds which are very toxic to our body.
How did these victims get alcohol poisoning?
All alcoholic beverages sold should only contain Ethanol and no methanol at all. Most alcoholic beverages are produced through brewing, whereby yeast or enzymes are added to starchy grains such as rice, wheat, malt or even fruits such as grapes. This process is called fermentation and the end product contains alcohol, which may be methanol or ethanol or other alcohols. However, most producers of alcoholic beverages have strict quality control on their products and makes sure that their products do not contain methanol.
Conversely, homemade alcoholic beverages, sometimes called moonshine, do not have such quality control practices. When brewing alcohol, there may be methanol produced as a by-product of the brewing process that is not removed and may cause methanol poisoning.
Lastly, compounded alcoholic beverages, such as the ones consume by the victims, may be adulterated with methanol. These beverages are produced via mixing pure ethanol with water and other flavourings to create a certain taste. These products are not brewed. Instead, they use industrial produced pure ethanol as an ingredient. Sometimes the suppliers of these pure ethanol to the producers of compounded alcoholic beverages may have accidentally supplied ethanol that is laced with methanol, or these producers may have just purchase ethanol through publicly available sources such as pharmacies or hardware stores.
Many may not know this, but pure ethanol is not readily available in the market. You may purchase rubbing alcohol at a pharmacy or alcohol for burners/lamps at a hardware store, but they are always not pure ethanol. They are usually called “denatured ethanol” or “methylated spirit”. These “ethanol” has been deliberately laced with methanol to make it taste bad and poisonous. This is required by law in most countries for two reasons:
- To discourage the recreation consumption of ethanol
- Alcoholic beverages are a source of lucrative tax income for many countries, and because industrial produced ethanol is so cheap, if people start consuming industrial ethanol, then it is not profitable enough as a tax income source. Furthermore, ethanol used for industrial purposes are taxed differently from alcoholic beverages.
How do I know if I have methanol poisoning?
Symptoms of methanol poisoning usually occur 12-24 hours after its consumption.
- abdominal pain
More severe symptoms usually affect the eye, where changes in vision or even blindness may occur.
If you have consumed alcohol from dubious sources and experience the about symptoms, do seek help from a medical facility.
How is methanol poisoning treated?
Surprisingly, the treatment is ethanol. Ethanol is usually given so that it competes with methanol from being broken down to toxic by-products. This buys time for the body to excrete the toxic by-products that has already produced before it kills the patient.
There is also a medication known as fomepizole that prevents the break down of methanol in the body.
If the situation is dire, something doctors may recommend dialysis to remove the toxic products directly from the blood.