Fake Alcohol

Fake Alcohol

Poison in Paradise

By Dr. Deborah Mills

Methanol poisoning of travelers has recently been in the news. An Australian teenager has died from methanol poisoning after a New Year’s eve visit to a bar in Lombok, Bali. His father reported that his son was served what he thought was imported vodka, mixed with lime from genuine bottles behind the bar.

There have been cases of poisoning in Indonesia, most notably in Bali and Lombok, from alcoholic drinks adulterated with harmful substances, particularly methanol. Locals and foreigners, have died or have become seriously ill. Cases have usually involved local spirits and spirit-based drinks, such as cocktails, but supposed brand name alcohol can also be adulterated. A number of deaths have also been reported after drinking adulterated arak – a traditional rice based spirit.

Various substances can contaminate the drinks of unwary travelers. I received an email, from a patient who has now lived in Beijing for about 10 years. Below is a story of a likely poisoning with isopropyl alcohol.
Dr Passanante had seen numerous of these cases from westerners going to popular bars frequented by foreigners. His symptoms were racing heart rate, weak pulse, tingling in arms and legs, tiredness and possible low blood pressure. The onset took place about 10 hours after his last drink. His condition improved rapidly after administration of a small amount of valium.
I have known for many years that there is a lot of fake alcohol in Beijing but I tend not to drink much when I am out and usually when drinking, buy red wine. The target for the fake products are spirits lines. I had also assumed that the products which I could taste were fake were made from ethanol and flavoured, but Dr. Passanante advised that they were made from isopropyl alcohol. I expect that these fake products abound in all parts of China as I have tasted fake Johnny Walker Black in remote places such as Yulin, northern Shaanxi Province, several years ago.
I thought I would relay this information to you so you could pass it on to others planning for combine business and pleasure in China. My colleague had a frightening and unpleasant day last Sunday although had recovered quite well later that day. As he was in Beijing, very good medical help was at hand, but if he had been in a remote location I have no idea how he would have managed.”

This issue of spiked drinks is a growing problem around the world. Travelers always need to guard their drink so nothing unexpected is dropped in. Isopropyl alcohol is a topical anti-antiseptic. Typical household preparations contain 70% isopropanol. Also used as a solvent in many household, cosmetic, and topical pharmaceutical products.

This substance is the most common toxic alcohol exposure, reported to poison centers in the United States. Cases occur in the thousands, but toxicity is rarely severe.

Methanol was used by the Egyptians as an embalming fluid. It is used in industry to make formaldehyde and in the production of plastics and biodiesel. It is mixed with alcohol to make ‘metho’. As little as 10ml can cause blindness. The story of bootleg alcohol causing blindness comes from the effects of methanol.

Travel safety includes choosing safe alcohol.

  • Only drink beverages from a trusted source.
  • Only drink beverages you have opened and poured yourself.
  • Ideally don’t drink from already opened bottles.
  • Don’t accept drinks from anyone unless you know them well.
  • Watch your drink.
  • Stay with your friends. If you start to feel dizzy or ill, ask someone you trust to take you to a safe place.
  • Drink in moderation. Excessive alcohol increases the risk of injury from fights, and accidents.

Dr. Deborah Mills is an Australia based medical doctor and author, with over 25 years experience specializing in global travel health.


Photos © Indonesia Tourism, Beverage Daily

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