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What Is Methanol Poisoning? Learn the Symptoms (+ How to Prevent It)

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Methanol - Dr. Axe

Methanol is actually the most simple form of alcohol. You may wonder, can I drink methanol? No, you definitely should avoid drinking it. In recent years, there have been a significant number of deaths around the world linked to home-brewed alcohol containing concerning levels of this chemical. According to a scientific article published in 2016, the incidence of contamination of traditionally fermented alcoholic beverages is increasing globally, and people are dying as a result of drinking these seemingly safe libations.

Why does methanol kill you?

Well it’s not always deadly, but it certainly can be due to the fact that the body ultimately converts it into formic acid (which is also found in ant venom). Formic acid is slow to metabolize and can build up in the body. This can lead to many unwanted symptoms. Some of the scariest include blindness and even death.

Why is homemade or traditionally fermented alcoholic beverages so problematic? According to ABC Health & Wellbeing:

Commercially-made spirits are very safe because manufacturers use technologies specifically designed to ensure methanol is separated from the ethanol. But home brew systems are typically not so technically advanced, which makes separation more difficult.

According to the National Institutes of Health, as little as two tablespoons (30 milliliters) of it can be deadly to a child, and about two to eight ounces (60 to 240 milliliters) can be deadly for an adult. At these levels, “Blindness is common and often permanent despite medical care.”


What Is Methanol?

The methanol formula is CH₃OH, the molar mass of methanol is 32.04 g/mol and the density of methanol is 792 kg/m³. The methanol melting point is -143.7 degrees Fahrenheit (-97.6 degrees Celsius), and the methanol boiling point is 148.5 degrees F (64.7 degrees C). Unless you’re really into chemistry, that probably doesn’t tell you much.

So what is it? Methanol structure (CH3OH) tells you that it is is four parts hydrogen, one part oxygen and one part carbon. Also called methyl alcohol, it is a colorless liquid that is considered toxic, volatile and flammable. It actually has the strange ability to burn without color or smoke so in daylight, a methanol fire is basically invisible.

How do you make methanol?

It can be man-made using natural gas or coal, which undergoes a conversion and distillation process that results in pure methanol.

Can you smell methanol?

By itself, it has a scent similar to ethanol. If you’re comparing methanol vs. ethanol, both are byproducts of fermentation (including the making of alcoholic beverages), but unlike ethanol, methanol is generally considered poisonous for human consumption.

It’s also natural for small amounts of it to be present in living organisms as a part of their normal metabolic processes. For example, this chemical occurs naturally in vegetables and fruits, wood, volcanic gases, and decaying vegetation. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevenetion, “Foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, fruit juices, fermented beverages, and diet soft drinks containing aspartame are the primary sources of methanol in the human body.”

As a result of it being produced as a man-made chemical, you can find it in the air as a result of car emissions, paint and solvent fumes, as well as burning waste. It’s also sometimes found in contaminated waterways and cigarette smoke.


What Are the Main Uses of Methanol?

You may have heard of a water methanol injection kit, which was originally used in World War II to boost power output and longevity of fighting planes.

If you’re not familiar with the variety of methanol uses, this chemical is mainly used in the creation of fuel, antifreeze and solvents. It can be found common products including gasoline, antifreeze, pesticides, cleaning products, inks, paints and paint thinners. It’s also used to create other chemicals, such as formaldehyde and acetic acid.

Why is methanol bad?

It can be bad when it’s man-made or naturally occurring in dangerous levels.


What Are the Side Effects of Methanol?

According to a scientific article published in the Journal of Medicine and Life:

Methanol intoxication occurs through unintentional or suicidal ingestion as well as after attempted inebriation. Alcoholics and prisoners are considered high-risk groups that often substitute ethanol with methanol-contained substances.

This chemical can be absorbed into the body by inhalation, ingestion, skin contact or eye contact. Skin contact can cause dermatitis.

What happens if you smell methanol?

Short-term exposure from breathing itcan cause:

  • Acid in the blood, leading to death
  • Visual problems, leading to blindness
  • Neurological damage
  • Headaches and dizziness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Movement disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease
  • Loss of smell

Long-term exposure from breathing this chemical may cause:

  • Loss of consciousness, coma, seizure or death
  • Headaches and dizziness
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of smell
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Blurred vision and blindness
  • Seizures
  • Movement disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease
  • Brain and nervous system damage
  • Birth defects

What is the effect of drinking methanol?

Initial symptoms of intoxication include central nervous system depression, headache, dizziness, nausea, lack of coordination and confusion. Large doses can cause unconsciousness and death. Symptoms such as abdominal pain and loss of vision can appear a few hours to a few days after exposure, which is due to the accumulation of the toxic byproducts in the body over time.


Signs of Methanol Poisoning

Methanol poisoning is a serious medical emergency. According to the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment:

Methanol poisoning happens when people are exposed to more methanol than their bodies can handle. You should never drink pure methanol. Drinking a few teaspoons of undiluted methanol can lead to blindness and can even be fatal. Less-severe symptoms of high methanol exposure include headaches, blurred vision, and muscle pain.

Symptoms of methanol poisoning can include:

  • Breathing difficulty
  • Blurred vision
  • Pupil dilation
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Leg cramps
  • Weakness
  • Low blood pressure
  • Agitated behavior
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty walking
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Bluish-colored lips and fingernails
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Liver problems, including jaundice (yellow skin) and bleeding
  • Pancreatitis (nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain)
  • Vomiting, sometimes bloody
  • Blindness, complete or partial, sometimes described as “snow blindness”
  • Seizures
  • No breathing
  • Coma (unresponsiveness)

People at risk for methanol toxicity include include toddlers and young children exploring their environments, alcoholics, and suicidal individuals. The minimal lethal dose in adults in the absence of medical treatment is believed to be 0.3-1 g/kg of body weight.

How to Treat Methanol Poisoning

If you suspect methanol poisoning in yourself or someone you know, always seek immediate medical assistance. According to Mayo Clinic:

Adults and children who have accidentally consumed methanol or isopropyl alcohol may need hemodialysis — a mechanical way of filtering waste and toxins from your system — to speed the removal of alcohol from their bloodstream.

You should not make a person throw up after ingesting this chemical unless told to do so by Poison Control or a health care professional. If you need more information, contact Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222.


Foods/Substances to Avoid

According to Woodrow C. Monte, Ph.D, R.D., the professor emeritus of food science and nutrition at Arizona State University, if you want to avoid consuming this chemical, these are some of the worst known sources:

  • Cigarettes
  • Diet foods and drinks with aspartame
  • Canned fruit and vegetable products
  • Jellies, jams and marmalades not made fresh and kept refrigerated
  • Smoked foods
  • Sugar-free chewing gum
  • Overly ripe or near rotting fruits or vegetables

Of course, as mentioned earlier, homemade, fermented alcoholic beverages are another one of the worst sources.


Final Thoughts

  • What is methanol alcohol used for? It is commonly used in the creation of things like fuel, antifreeze and solvents.
  • It can naturally be found in low levels in fruits and vegetables. Overly ripe or rotten fruits and vegetables and canned products are known to contain higher levels.
  • A very concerning source is improperly produced, homemade, distilled spirits, which can contain dangerously high levels.
  • In smaller amounts, side effects of this chemical can include headaches, blurred vision and muscle pain. In large doses, it can cause unconsciousness or even death.
  • To prevent exposure, avoid products that commonly contain it, including cigarette smoke and homemade alcoholic beverages.
  • If you must work with products that contain it (perhaps due to your profession), always wear appropriate protective gear and wash your hands well after using items that contain this chemical.

Read Next: 10+ Reasons to Drink Natural, Organic Wine


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