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Combating methanol abuse

Bizarre as the following story is, it’s not the first time people have been killed by illicit alcohol.

In February, there were four cases in Tennessee involving teenagers drinking a combination of Mountain Dew and racing fuel called “Dewshine.” Intentionally drinking racing fuel is exactly as dangerous and stupid as it sounds, and two of the teens died.

Racing fuel comes in a multitude of chemical combinations, but it often contains a form of alcohol called methanol. Although methanol can have similar effects to drinking alcohol when ingested, it can also kill in small amounts when consumed.

In a genuinely weird coincidence, last year PepsiCo introduced a version of Mountain Dew also called “Dewshine.” Problematic marketing aside – the soft drink is marketed with winks and nods to moonshine and bootlegging. It should be made clear that this product came out long before this story occured. Still, it’s a coincidence adding a potentially confusing twist on an old problem: solvent abuse.

What a difference a letter makes

Ethanol is the active ingredient in alcoholic drinks. Methanol’s another matter. Sometimes called “wood alcohol” because it used to be manufactured by distilling wood, methanol is now usually made from natural gas. It has highly toxic effects when ingested, largely because methanol is broken down in the body in a very different way from ethanol.

According to the National Institutes of Health, when the body processes ethanol it changes into a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde, which is metabolized quickly into carbon dioxide and water. When methanol is processed, the body changes it to formaldehyde, which metabolizes into formic acid. Formic acid, found in ant stings, is poisonous in large amounts and can damage the central nervous system.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s website MedlinePlus, methanol’s effects can include:

  • Breathing difficulties
  • Vision problems, including partial or total blindness
  • Nervous system effects including dizziness, headache, confusion and seizures
  • Coma and death

It’s found in a variety of household and industrial products, including copy machine fluid, portable fuels like Sterno and varnishes. Methanol is also widely found in automotive products, such as antifreeze, windshield wiper fluid and fuel.

Why would anyone drink the stuff?

Most people who drink methanol deliberately do so out of desperation. They either can’t afford drinkable alcohol or have no access to it due to age or region. It’s often the same reason people abuse other industrial solvents like lighter fluid, spray paint and cleaners.

For adolescents, it’s much easier to get access to solvents than it is alcohol – generally, kids don’t get carded when they purchase antifreeze or computer duster. Most solvents are abused by sniffing the fumes, which is why these substances are often referred to as “inhalants.” It’s a dismayingly popular form of substance abuse in younger people – a study cited by the Foundation for a Drug-Free World found 593,000 children aged between 12 and 17 in the U.S. used inhalants for the first time between 2002 and 2006.

Sometimes, drinking methanol isn’t a choice; it often shows up in clandestine and bootleg alcohol. In 2012, methanol killed 39 people in the Czech Republic and four people in Poland after they consumed illegal alcohol. In 2015, over 100 people in Mumbai died after consuming homemade alcohol containing methanol.

Treatment is key

Solvent abuse is one of the more dangerous forms of substance abuse, a disease which is lethal if left untreated. Sovereign Health of Texas’ El Paso facility is staffed with experts in addiction treatment who offer treatment programs tailored to their clients’ individual needs. For more information, please call our 24/7 helpline.