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.
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.
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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.
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.