Deadly Alcohol Back in the News — In November 2016 Health-e posted “Dying for a Drink” about unregulated bars that pour illicitly produced and deadly alcoholic drinks containing methanol, an urgent health issue that doesn’t seem to be going away.
This past October Perth native, Bailey Chalmers, visited Bali like many young Australians, to have a good time, although a tainted cocktail just about cost him his life. Thanks to the quick reaction of methanol awareness campaigner, Colin Ahearn, life saving info was passed to Chalmers’ mother who in turn instructed her son’s friend by cell phone on what to do.
Mr. Chalmers is alive today and the answer was halting the process of methanol poisoning ironically with ethanol, an ingredient in all alcoholic drinks — kind of like fighting fire with fire. Methanol is the simplest form of alcohol. It is closely related to ethanol, the type of alcohol normally found in beer, wine and spirits — but much more toxic. Commercially made spirits are very safe simply because manufacturers use technologies specifically designed to ensure methanol is separated from the ethanol. But nefarious, back-of-the house systems are typically crude and basic.
Dying for a Drink was a story about Liam Davies who succumbed to methanol poisoning in Jan 2013 after being served what was assured to be genuine imported vodka at a bar on Gili Trawangan. The drink was in fact an adulterated mix of local spirits and unknown chemicals. Liam and two friends suffered from severe methanol poisoning that night, Liam being the most severe.
The rollout of pernicious medical complications begins after 12 to 24 hours of drinking methanol, most often irreparable damage that starts with kidney failure followed by heart and liver damage and visual disturbances like blurred and tunnel vision, changes in color perception, and temporary or permanent blindness and brain damage.
How is methanol poisoning treated? The first piece of advice from all the experts is to quickly seek medical help if you fear you may have been poisoned with methanol. Doctors treat methanol poisoning by administering ethanol, which prevents the toxicity by stopping the production of formic acid. Another antidote is a drug called fomepizole. Like ethanol, this drug inhibits the conversion of methanol into toxic compounds in the body. Hospitals may also use hemodialysis to clear the methanol from the blood.
What is Arak?
Typically the cheapest local spirit available, unregulated arak production has caused the deaths of numerous locals and tourists in Southeast Asia. Arak, actually an Arabic word, is used as a generic term for a variety of spirits in many cultures. In this instance, we’re referring to the locally produced alcohol in Indonesia and Malaysia. Arak can sometimes contain methanol (also found in paint thinner, wiper fluid, etc.) — a highly toxic form of alcohol that causes blindness, coma, and death.