The country's Ministry of Health says there have been 19 suspected methanol poisoning deaths between June and July.

By Allie Strickler
July 22, 2019
Shutterstock/bogdanhoda

Officials in Costa Rica confiscated nearly 30,000 bottles of alcohol suspected of containing methanol, a highly toxic chemical, according to multiple alerts from the country's Ministry of Health. As of Friday, the ministry confirmed 19 possible methanol alcohol poisoning deaths in Costa Rica between June and July.

"Of these cases, 14 are men and five are women, aged between 32 and 72 years who died, seven in San Jose, four in Cartago, three in Limon, two in Guanacaste, one in Heredia and two pending investigation," reads one alert from the Ministry of Health.

To be clear, this doesn't mean you should avoid traveling to Costa Rica this summer. There are currently no travel advisories for the country related to the methanol poisoning outbreak, nor are there any active alerts from the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica. The Costa Rica Tourism Board was not readily available for comment by the time of publication.

The Costa Rican Ministry of Health's investigation is still ongoing. But for now, reps for the ministry advise against drinking alcohol from bottles labeled "Guaro Gran Apache", "Red Star Brandy", "Guaro Montano", "Aguardiente Barón Rojo", "Aguardiente Timbuka", and "Aguardiente Molotov ", as laboratory samples of these products have tested positive for methanol, according to a health alert.

It's important to note, this doesn't mean all bottles with the above labels are potentially tainted with methanol. One Costa Rican health alert states that these brands "are registered with the Ministry of Health, so it is suspected that in the national market, counterfeit products of these brands circulate." However, it's impossible to tell the difference between counterfeit bottles and real ones. Thus, the Ministry of Health recommends not consuming any alcohol with the above six labels, just to be safe. (Related: Your Hangover Probably Lasts Longer Than You Realize)

ICYDK, methanol poisoning outbreaks aren't that uncommon. In recent years, outbreaks have hit Cambodia, Ecuador, India, Turkey, Indonesia, and Kenya, among other countries, with fatality rates of over 30 percent in some cases, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Though methanol is a natural byproduct of alcohol fermentation, the chemical is supposed to burn off naturally in the process. However, black market booze is, unfortunately, a thing. This means some distillers either deliberately skip the step of heating alcohol properly during fermentation, leaving methanol in the bottle, or they add in the deadly chemical later to dilute drinks, cut costs, and allow for a larger profit.

Even scarier, methanol is odorless and colorless, meaning it's impossible to spot the chemical through taste or smell. Plus, any signs of methanol poisoning are likely to be delayed, according to WHO. Initial symptoms can include drowsiness, unsteady balance, and disinhibition—but as WHO notes, "since poisoning often occurs in the context of drinking alcohol, this may not be noticed." Over time, symptoms can become extremely dangerous, including headache, vomiting, impaired vision (and, in severe cases, blindness), coma, and loss of breathing. (Related: How Bad Are the Effects of Alcohol and Binge Drinking When You're Young?)

For now, Costa Rica's health authorities urge the public to be cautious when purchasing and consuming alcohol.

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