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Methanol is colorless, odorless, and responsible for at least 19 deaths in Costa Rica. Here’s how to protect yourself from tainted booze when traveling.

Methanol is colorless, odorless, and responsible for at least 19 deaths in Costa Rica. Here’s how to protect yourself from tainted booze when traveling.

Whether you're drinking locally or on vacation, always be aware of what's in your beverage.

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Whether you’re drinking locally or on vacation, always be aware of what’s in your beverage.
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iStock

At least 19 people in Costa Rica have died from drinking alcohol tainted with methanol, the country’s health ministry announced last week. Also called methyl alcohol, methanol is commonly used in antifreeze, solvents, and other industrial chemicals. It is far more toxic than typical adult beverages that contain ethanol, or what’s typically thought of as the drinking alcohol that gives you a buzz in small amounts and makes you sick in larger amounts.

Around the world, bootleggers add methanol to counterfeit booze (often in reused brand-name bottles) as a cheap way to increase the potency of their products. Some of the most notorious countries for illicit alcohol reports are Mexico, Russia, the Dominican Republic, and parts of Africa including Uganda, Tanzania, Cameroon, and Mozambique, according to the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking.

Even in small quantities, methanol can cause serious health problems, blindness, and death for unwary vacationers who happen to drink it. And it can be difficult to detect – the substance is colorless and odorless, and counterfeiters may put bad booze in brand-name bottles or mix it into discount “party punch” drink specials.

Read more: 19 people have died after consuming alcohol tainted with methanol in Costa Rica

“The only way to tell for sure is a lab test, and that’s obviously just not possible in most cases,” Kemal Canlar, the founder of SafeProof, an organization that tracks reports of counterfeit alcohol, told INSIDER.

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing travelers can do to better protect themselves against counterfeit booze. Being aware of the risks and learning to recognize suspicious bottles and bar behavior can help you avoid the danger of a doctored cocktail, Canlar said. Here’s what you need to know to stay safe while drinking on vacation.

Always keep an eye on your drink, especially when traveling

When you belly up to the bar, it’s a good idea to know exactly what you’re getting, especially in an unfamiliar area. Canlar suggests watching your drink being made to make sure it’s what you ordered.

Similarly, never leave drinks unattended or accept drinks from strangers, no matter where you’re imbibing. Once a drink leaves your line of sight, it’s a prime opportunity for someone to slip in dangerous and unwanted additive like methanol or even other drugs like rohypnol or GHB that can cause you to black out.

Top-shelf liquors with suspiciously low prices are, well, suspicious.

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Top-shelf liquors with suspiciously low prices are, well, suspicious.
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Kim Grosz/ iStock

If top-shelf prices or fishbowl-type drink specials seem too good to be true, they probably are

Stumbling on a bar with cheap drinks seems like a vacationer’s dream, but be cautious about taking advantage of it. If prices are absurdly low compared with similar local venues, or if the bar is offering steep discounts on your favorite top-shelf brands, take those signs as red flags that the booze is suspect.

Counterfeiters often serve lower-quality or tainted alcohol from reused brand-name bottles, Canlar said, so take note of faded, peeling labels on full bottles, a tell-tale sign of tampering.

Read more: There’s been a spate of seemingly suspicious tourist deaths in the Dominican Republic, but vacation deaths happen more than you think. Here’s how to stay safe.

Also be wary of drink specials that involve many ingredients served from a large, premixed container like a punch bowl or pitcher. Cheap, strong mixes are a convenient way to hide a tainted product. “It could be anything in there,” Canlar said.

Order drinks you’re familiar with so you can tell if something is off

The safest bet while bar-hopping on vacation is to order drinks you’re familiar with so you can tell if something tastes off, he added. Order a familiar brand neat or with plain soda since ice can also contain contaminants, especially in regions where clean water is an issue.

Before you drink, smell it, then take a small sip. It should taste like what you’re used to, Canlar said. If it doesn’t, stop.

You should also stop drinking and reconsider your plan if you notice yourself or people around you seem excessively intoxicated, confused, disoriented, or physically incapacitated beyond the expected effects of drinking alcohol.

Don't go out alone.

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Don’t go out alone.
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iStock

It’s always safer to go out with a group

Especially in unfamiliar places, always bring at least one buddy with you when sampling the local bar scene. One person is a much easier target than a group, and having people around ensures you have someone to help if anything goes wrong, Canlar advised.

Going out in groups makes it easier to take precautions like watching one another’s drinks and can make it easier to identify when someone is acting inappropriately, either from too much to drink or from a spiked drink.

Sticking together can help give you peace of mind as you enjoy your time on the beach, at the resort, or out on the town.

The clearest sign of methanol poisoning is feeling more intoxicated than usual for the amount of alcohol you’ve consumed

If you start slurring and stumbling after one to two drinks when you’d typically feel only mildly tipsy, that’s a warning sign, Canlar said, and you should seek medical attention. Like alcohol, methanol can affect people differently based on size, body type, metabolism, and circumstantial factors, but unusual behavior shouldn’t be ignored.

Another major symptom of methanol poisoning is blurred vision, eventually leading to blindness in severe cases.

If you or someone you know does consume methanol, seek medical attention immediately. Be sure to tell medical staff you’ve been drinking and suspect tainted alcohol, so they don’t assume the problem is alcohol poisoning.

Methanol exposure can be treated with a drug called fomepizole or, if that medication isn’t available, by other means, including with regular alcohol. Ethanol can prevent the body from metabolizing the methanol into deadly toxins, buying patients time for treatments like dialysis.

The Dominican Republic has a history of ‘plastic surgery tourism’ that has led to hospitalizations and deaths

The Dominican Republic has a history of ‘plastic surgery tourism’ that has led to hospitalizations and deaths

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REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo
  • Earlier this month, a New York man and an Alabama high school teacher died in separate instances related to receiving plastic surgery in the Dominican Republic.
  • On June 7, 45-year-old Alicia Williams, a ninth grade English teacher at Huffman High School in Birmingham, Alabama, died after complications from an undisclosed cosmetic procedure.
  • Days later, Manuel Jose Nunez, 28, died after a liposuction procedure inside the Caribbean Plastic Surgery Clinic in Santo Domingo.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has no current warnings against traveling to the country for plastic surgery, but has issued such warnings in the past.
  • Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.

The Dominican Republic has a history of “plastic surgery tourism,” where people travel to the country for low-cost procedures that have led to a number of hospitalizations over the years.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has no current warnings against traveling to the country for plastic surgery, but has issued such warnings in the past.

Earlier this month, a New York man and an Alabama high school teacher died in separate instances related to receiving plastic surgery in the Dominican Republic.

On June 7, 45-year-old Alicia Williams, a ninth grade English teacher at Huffman High School in Birmingham, Alabama, died after traveling down to the Dominican for an undisclosed cosmetic procedure on June 2. Following the procedure, she suffered complications, including blood clots.

Days later, Manuel Jose Nunez, 28, died after a liposuction procedure inside the Caribbean Plastic Surgery Clinic in Santo Domingo, according to Pix 11.

A spokesperson from Caribbean Plastic Surgery told local media, translated by Pix 11, that the liposuction procedure was performed by a gynecologist named Oscar Polanco.

Polanco was previously denounced by the Dominican Society of Plastic Surgery for claiming to be a plastic surgeon, Fox News reported.

US officials have warned against “medical tourism” in the Dominican Republic.

The Dominican Republic was named the place a US tourist is most likely to incur complications from plastic surgery, according to a 2018 report from the Brigham and Women’s Hospital-Harvard Medical School and Boston University of Public Health.

A team from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston told DailyMail.com in March that the Dominican Republic might be the most dangerous place to travel abroad for plastic surgery.

And in 2016, US health officials issued a warning about “medical tourism”after at least 18 women were infected by disfiguring bacteria after undergoing plastic surgery procedures in the Dominican Republic.

The infections, caused by a germ called mycobacteria, led to women being hospitalized and forced to take antibiotics for months, the CDC said at the time, according to CBS News.

Read more: An Alabama high school teacher who went to the Dominican Republic for plastic surgery died after complications from the procedure

New York area-based plastic surgeon Dr. Steve Fallek who heads Steve Fallek Plastic Surgery and is the medical director at Beautyfix Med Spa, told INSIDER that a main incentive for medical tourism is lower costs, but going abroad can cause problems in the long run.

“You’re going into the great unknown to save a couple of dollars,” he said. “The best case scenario is that you’re happy and everything is fine, but the downside can be really bad.”

Dr. Fallek said patients who go abroad risk encountering bacteria that they haven’t seen in the US, drinking unsafe water, and traveling on a plane shortly after surgery, which can increase the risk of developing blood clots and pulmonary embolism.

He also said when someone goes down to the Dominican Republic for cosmetic surgery, they might not be protected by medical malpractice insurance.

“It’s not that the doctors don’t necessarily know what they’re doing, it’s that if there’s a problem or complication, you essentially have nobody to protect you,” he said.

Credentials and after-care can be limited when seeking cosmetic surgery abroad.

In a 2018 article for the medical journal of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS), author and ASPS member Steven P. Davison urged people not to seek out medical tourism, which he called a “growing, unregulated industry.”

“While patients may be attracted by the lower costs for plastic surgery and other procedures performed in other countries, they must also be aware of the potential risks – legal as well as medical,” he said.

ASPS said in a pamphlet about cosmetic tourism that it can be difficult to assess credentials outside of the United States, and follow up care can be limited.

Davison noted that it’s particularly difficult for doctors to manage the aftercare of a patient who they didn’t initially operate on. “Local doctors may not know what surgical techniques the physician used in the initial operation, making treatment difficult or nearly impossible. Revision surgeries can be more complicated than the initial operation and patients rarely get the desired results,” the pamphlet said.

The two recent plastic surgery deaths come amid news of several US tourist deaths at all-inclusive resorts in the Dominican Republic.

Several US tourists have died from heart attacks, pulmonary edemas, or other apparent natural causes while staying at all-inclusive resorts in the Dominican. Two other US tourists died in a car crash on the country’s notoriously dangerous roads.

The US State Department told INSIDER that the number of deaths isn’t unusual.

“Speaking generally, we have not seen an uptick in the number of US citizen deaths reported to the Department,” a spokesperson for the State Department said.

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