How to Protect Yourself from Black Market Booze While On Vacation
23-year-old Hannah Powell lost her vision after she got methanol poisoning from unregulated alcohol on vacation in Greece. Her story is terrifying—and not all that uncommon.
After a bar crawl with friends on vacation in Zante, Greece, Hannah Powell felt what could've easily been mistaken for a hangover. The 23-year-old Brit was exhausted and had been throwing up before bed. But when she woke up and couldn't see anything-despite the hotel room blinds being open and friends lying nearby-she knew something was wrong.
Hannah was rushed to the hospital and tests confirmed: She had methanol poisoning.
The night before, she'd unknowingly been drinking bootleg vodka-unregulated booze made on the cheap, which often means there are undisclosed amounts of methanol inside. Her friends who had drunk the same liquor were sick with stomach cramps as Hannah lay in a hospital bed, but she got the worst of it: Hannah returned home weeks later but never regained her eyesight. And because her kidneys had shut down too, the 23-year-old had to spend nearly 18 months on dialysis until she got a kidney transplant, the BBC reports. (Related: 5 Hidden Dangers of Mixed Drinks)
The Risk of Bootleg Booze
Methanol poisoning from adulterated drinks is on the rise, says the World Health Organization (WHO). It is not a very common problem in America: There were 224 cases of methanol alcohol exposure that required medical attention in 2017, and seven deaths-but the vast majority of these were intentional, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers' Toxic Exposure Surveillance System.
It is, however, a real issue in developing countries-including ones that Americans might visit. In April 2018, Indonesia saw more than 100 people killed and 160 hospitalized because of alcohol that'd been mixed with methanol. And earlier this month, bootleg liquor was blamed for more than 80 deaths in northern India. Mexican authorities are still shutting down black market tequila distilleries, partially in response to a news investigation reporting that tourists visiting upscale, all-inclusive resorts were blacking out and becoming violently ill after just a few drinks. A government report says that 36 percent of all alcohol consumed in Mexico is unregulated.
What You Need to Know
Methanol is a highly toxic organic solvent in products like windshield washer fluid and antifreeze, but it's also a natural by-product of alcohol fermentation. If alcohol is distilled properly, the methanol will burn off naturally in the process. But when distillers are looking to cut costs and speed up production, they skip the step of heating the booze properly, leaving the deadly chemical in the bottle. As methanol is a cheaper alternative to ethanol (normal drinking alcohol), it can also be added in later as a way to dilute drinks and allow for a larger profit.
And just 30ml of methanol-roughly a shot glass-can kill you as it turns into formaldehyde in your stomach.
Initially, after you drink it, you'll experience a headache, dizziness, nausea, lack of coordination, and confusion-all of which could be easily overlooked depending on how many drinks you've had. Ten to 30 hours later, the more serious side effects can start, like blurred or complete loss of vision and acidosis, which can cause vomiting, muscle spasms, numbness or tingling, and tremors. Untreated, the poison can permanently impair your vision, cause seizures and cerebral edema, or kill you, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
How to Prevent Methanol Poisoning
Since methanol is odorless and colorless, it's impossible to detect the deadly chemical through taste or smell. And because there's such a delay between ingesting it and the serious symptoms setting in-and, in the case of bootleg booze, you have alcohol to confuse your symptoms and judgment-it increases the chance of long-term damage or death, reports WHO. (FYI, your hangover probably lasts longer than you realize.)
It's hard to really know if you're being safe-bars and resorts can mask the cheap stuff by putting it inside expensive bottles, and even beer has caused methanol poisoning. But the health organization warns that tourists are especially at risk in holiday settings where high alcohol consumption is encouraged, so be on alert on vacation. WHO advises people to steer clear of cheap alcoholic drinks (be wary of a "sale") and never buy booze sold in unlabeled (or poorly printed) containers.
Most importantly, be extra vigilant if you experience headache, dizziness, nausea, lack of coordination, confusion, or anything more serious if you've been drinking, immediately after or up to 36 hours later. Getting treated as soon as possible is key to avoid permanent damage.