On Methanol poisoning in South East Asia

Methanol(CH3OH), or wood alcohol because it used to be distilled from burned wood, was used for embalming by the Egyptians thousands of years ago, and was a well-known poison in the 18th and 19th century, until its effects and presence in human tissues became forensically demonstrable. Today Methanol is mainly used as a solvent, fuel(eg for Monster Trucks) or in antifreeze, and can be produced en masse in a catalytic process from carbon monoxide, dioxide and hydrogen. It is also added to industrially produced Ethanol(the alcohol in alcoholic beverages)to make it undrinkable, thereby avoiding ther tax excise.

Methanol is colorless, flammable, and tastes a little bit sweetish. In the human body, it gets metabolised to formic acid and formaldehyde/formate salts. The most common clinical signs of Methanol poisoning are abdominal pain, vomiting, anxiety, acidosis, blindness, weakness, shortness of breath, coma and death. It is important to know that as little as one teaspoon of Methanol can lead to optic nerve damage and blindness, and 2 tablespoons can kill a child or small adult, although the average deadly dose is around 100ml(1-2ml/kg).

Methanol poisoning can be treated in Emergency Departments and Intensive Care units with an infusion of Ethanol, but this has to happen quickly, because the effects on cellular oxidation and brain and nerve damage tend to manifest within hours.

There have been quite a few recent cases of Methanol poisoning in Indonesia, in particular the holiday resorts like Lombok or Bali.

The main culprit seems to be a liquor called Arak Bali, a coconut flower, rice and sugarcane spirit mixed with fruit juice that is sold as “Jungle Juice” in bars and clubs. Tourists seem to love it because of the high alcohol content of 20-50%. But unfortunately some Arak has been known to contain non-trivial amounts of Methanol, and in 2009 25 people in Bali died after drinking contaminated Arak.

The Australian govenrment on its Smarttraveller website for Indonesia doesn’t have much to say about this:

Foreigners have died or have become seriously ill after consuming brand name alcohol or local spirits adulterated with harmful substances.

That’s really not very helpful, is it.

For me, the advice is clear: Stay away from unlabelled, locally distilled or bootlegged alcohol in SE Asia(that includes India). Saving money on the admittedly very expensive overseas brand alcohol is not worth your eyesight or your life. I wish the Australian government would come out much more vocal on this, and advise travellers to avoid Arak in Indonesia altogether, and to generally keep to overseas brand drinks while in SE Asia. It’s a gamble not worth making.

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