Homemade and counterfeit alcoholic drinks can contain methanol, and the chemical has been blamed for the deaths of 19 people in Costa Rica this holiday season. Most alcohol you’re likely to encounter while on vacation is probably safe, but here are some precautions to keep in mind.
Methanol is a form of alcohol that’s related to drinking alcohol (ethanol) but more dangerous. It occurs naturally in small amounts in many alcoholic beverages — in wine, for example — and if those beverages are distilled improperly in the process of making hard liquor, they can end up with toxic levels of methanol. Drinks can also have methanol purposely added, because it can give the feeling of an alcohol “buzz” and is cheaper than regular ethanol. Either way, you don’t want to drink it.
Pay attention to warnings
Costa Rica’s health ministry has recently warned residents and tourists that they have found methanol in bottles labelled “Guaro Gran Apache,” “Red Star Brandy,” “Guaro Montano,” “Baron Red Brandy,” “Timbuka Brandy” and “Molotov Brandy.” Those brands are probably fine if you know the bottle in your hand is legit, but the health ministry says it seems that people have been passing off methanol-tainted alcohol under those labels.
Tainted alcohol is a worldwide problem: The Conversation notes deaths in India, China, and elsewhere associated with contaminated or improperly produced alcohol.
The drinks are also suspected of causing a string of recent deaths in the Dominican Republic that are still under investigation. No matter where you’re headed, keep an eye out for warnings and consider steering clear of beverages that are rumoured to be dangerous.
Avoid anything homemade or sketchy looking
Counterfeit and homemade liquors are the ones most often associated with methanol poisoning. The US Overseas Advisory Council suggests doing your best to avoid them entirely. If a drink is surprisingly cheap, be suspicious.
Watch out for symptoms and signs of poisoning
The initial symptoms of methanol poisoning are similar to those of being drunk; the World Health Organisation describes people at this stage as being “drowsy, unsteady, and disinhibited.” You won’t likely realise what’s going on until many hours later, and even then you may mistake methanol poisoning’s headache, vomiting, and vertigo for an ordinary hangover.
But methanol poisoning is far more serious. Besides an extreme version of what you’d expect from a night of drinking, symptoms of poisoning may include:
Hyperventilating or feeling breathless
Vision problems or blindness
If someone you know is experiencing these symptoms, you should get them to a hospital whether or not you can be sure they had any tainted alcohol.