What Exactly Is Methanol Poisoning?

Methanol is a toxic industrial alcohol and cannot be consumed like ethanol.
PHOTO: istockphoto

It’s Saturday night. (Or Wednesday. We won’t judge you for needing a mid-week drink!) You’re at the bar with your best girlfriend, having a cocktail (or three). You’re probably stressed and in need of some downtime. Or maybe you just want to hang out and catch up!

The worst thing that could happen is a vomit-fest in the ladies’ room, right?

For two women, it was much worse.

You’ve probably seen it in the news by now:  In June 2019, two women consumed Cosmic Carabao Gin and suffered from methanol poisoning. Reports say one woman died, while the other is still recovering. (Editor's Note: If you'd like to donate to aid in the victim's recovery, you may do so here.)

“Management [of methanol poisoning symptoms] is hospital-based and complicated. There is no first aid.” - Dr. Kenneth Hartigan-Go

How could this happen? How could one night of drinking end so badly?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tested samples of Cosmic Carabao Gin and found high levels of methanol. To make things worse, local liquor manufacturer Juan Brew did not yet have approval for certificate of product registration for Cosmic Carabao Gin, making their sale illegal.

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What is methanol?

First of all, what is this stuff that was in the gin anyway?

Methanol is a colorless liquid used in automotive antifreezes and in rocket fuels. Its derivatives are used in pharmaceuticals and perfumes. Non-toxic trace amounts can also be present naturally in fruit juices, according to the FDA.

Methanol has many uses, but it’s not really safe for human consumption. According to Difford’s Guide for Discerning Drinkers, “As little as 10 ml of methanol can cause permanent blindness by destruction of the optic nerve, and 30 ml of methanol is likely to be fatal.”

So how much methanol can you safely consume? Absolutely zero, according to Dr. Kenneth Hartigan-Go.

Aside from being an Associate Professor at the Asian Institute of Management, Dr. Hartigan-Go is a former director of the FDA. “Methanol is a toxic industrial alcohol and cannot be consumed like ethanol,” he says. Consuming methanol leads to “metabolic acidosis, blindness, death.” (Metabolic acidosis means the “chemical balance of acids and bases in your blood gets thrown off.”)

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Why is there methanol in Cosmic Carabao Gin?

To understand why gin would have such a toxic substance, it’s important to understand how such drinks are made.

Look up distilled spirits, and you’ll see complicated contraptions with lots of pipes and tubes and receptacles. Drinks like gin and vodka are made through a process called distillation. This means you take a liquid that is already alcoholic, such as beer, and you boil it in an enclosed environment. The boiling process separates the water from the alcohol, and the alcohol is found in the vapors that rise from the boiling liquid.

There are many types of alcohol, though, and not all of them are suitable for human consumption—like methanol. An important part of the distillation process is making sure those dangerous alcohols are removed in the distillation process, while leaving behind the alcohols that add flavor and are also safe to consume.

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The distillation process should have removed the methanol from the Cosmic Carabao gin. But because of the high levels of methanol, the FDA is now seizing all Cosmic Carabao Gin products from the market, and enlisting the help of local government units and law enforcement agencies to make sure it’s not sold or made available anywhere.

istockphoto
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How do you treat methanol poisoning?

Since methanol is a colorless liquid, it’s probably hard to tell if it’s been added to your food or drink. According to the World Health Organization, it’s also difficult to distinguish the symptoms of methanol poisoning because it often occurs while drinking alcohol. It may begin with “headaches, vomiting, abdominal pain, and vertigo. [Victims] may also start to hyperventilate and feel breathless.” In severe cases, blindness may occur.

But if you suspect methanol poisoning, Dr. Hartigan-Go says you should immediately call National Poison Control at the Philippine General Hospital. “Management [of the symptoms] is hospital-based and complicated. There is no first aid.”

Methanol poisoning is treated by “correcting the metabolic acidosis," explains Dr. Hartigan-Go. "We give antidotes to block the conversion of methanol to formic acid. [This is what] accumulates in the eyes to cause blindness.” Dialysis is the fastest, most effective way to treat methanol poisoning.

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How do you read the labels of an alcoholic drink so you know it’s safe?

Like pretty much everything, alcohol should be consumed in moderation! Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of regulation or legislation requiring alcohol manufacturers to list ingredients on their labels, and requirements differ from country to country.

Most alcohol labels indicate proof or alcohol by volume (ABV), which tells you how much alcohol is in your drink. The higher the proof, the greater the alcohol content. A drink that is 80 proof contains 40 percent alcohol. Some alcoholic drinks, usually low-calorie beers, indicate calories per serving, but not much other nutritional information.

The other information on alcohol labels might be useful if you’re a connoisseur or a bartender, but not so much if you’re looking for an ingredients list or nutritional information. If you’re looking at wine labels, you usually see the region and the vineyard it’s from. Scotch labels usually tell you how many years it was aged, and the type of wood the barrels are made of.

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How do you know if a food or beverage has FDA approval?

As a consumer, you want to be sure that the snack you’re buying at the convenience store or the wine you’re bringing to brunch is safe and won’t kill you. There’s no FDA stamp or label on food products, but what you can do is visit the FDA website. Just type in the brand name of food product (the search box is in the upper right corner, FYI!). The search results can show you information like registration numbers and validity dates, and any advisories related to the product.

The FDA food registration requirements are pretty complicated (check out the 34-page administrative order from the Department of Health), and the guidelines cover not just manufacturing, raw materials and processing, but also packaging, transportation, distribution, storage, and selling. The website doesn’t list any particular requirements for the registration of alcoholic beverages, but the basic requirements do require safety data—including toxicity tests.

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If you’re concerned about a food or beverage and you think the FDA should look into it, you can call them or send them a message. There’s a separate section for reporting issues with adverse drug reactions.

It’s cool to try out new food or drinks, and it’s even better when you buy local products. But safety should always be a priority, so read the label and do your research!

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If you suspect methanol poisoning, contact the National Poison Control Center (Philippine General Hospital): (02) 524-1078, (0922) 896-1541, or (02) 554-8400 loc. 3276

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