Is it a hangover, or something worse?
When you go on vacation, you’re probably too distracted by your new surroundings and your newfound liberty to enjoy a daytime cocktail in a judgment-free zone to stop and scrutinize just where that liquor you’re drinking really came from. But if you don’t pay close enough attention, you could find yourself drinking alcohol that’s been tainted with methanol.
And one hyper-popular destination—Costa Rica—is currently in the midst of a tainted alcohol problem that has turned out to be tragically fatal.
In a recent statement from Costa Rica’s Health Ministry, the agency announced that 25 people died and 59 people have been hospitalized due to drinking alcohol that was tainted with methanol. All of these incidents occurred over the course of the last two and a half months.
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Of the people who died, seven were in the capital city of San José, one in Alajuela, two in Heredia, five in Cartago, three in Guanacaste, one in Puntarenas, and four in Limón. The agency said that there are two cases that are still under investigation.
Outbreaks of mass methanol poisoning are by no means limited to Costa Rica.
In response, to Health Ministry seized over 55,000 bottles of liquor and closed 10 establishments in San José and Alajuela.
The statement also says that people shouldn’t consume, acquire, or market the following brands: Guaro Montano, Guaro Chonete, Guaro Cuerazo, Guaro Sacheto, Guaro Gran Apache, Aguardiente Estrella Roja, Aguardiente Barón Rojo, Aguardiente Timbuka, and Aguardiente Molotov.
Costa Rica’s Health Ministry told NBC News that no tourists had died as a result of drinking the tainted alcohol. NBC News does report, however, that Walker Barnes, a California man, returned from a trip to Costa Rica and started experiencing symptoms that his doctor confirmed to be consistent with methanol poisoning.
Is Your Liquor Legit?
Outbreaks of mass methanol poisoning are by no means limited to Costa Rica. There have been outbreaks in India, Malaysia, the Czech Republic, and the U.S. So avoiding methanol poisoning isn’t about eschewing any one place as it is generally being aware of what you’re consuming.
According to the World Health Organization, methanol is “found naturally in fruit juices” and “is also a product of fermentation.” But it becomes dangerous when either the concentration rises as a result of an “incorrectly managed distillation process” or “more particularly when methanol is deliberately added to fortify informally produced spirits.” The World Health Organization lists a number of ways individuals can avoid drinking alcohol that’s been tainted with methanol, including:
- Don’t buy alcoholic drinks that have been illegally produced.
- Don’t buy alcohol that’s in an unlabeled container.
- Be suspicious of alcohol sold in informal settings (like market stalls) going for an unusually cheap price.
- Make sure any branded alcohol looks correct. Check to make sure that the seal isn’t broken and that the label itself. That also means keeping an eye out for labels that look “poorly printed” or have typographical errors. So if the label says “Bakardi,” find another spot to grab a rum and Coke.
When It’s Not Just a Bad Hangover
The scary thing about methanol poisoning is that it tricky to know if you’re ingesting it (it’s odorless and colorless). Symptoms can present themselves as early as one hour and as late as 72 hours after consumption. And the Center for Disease Control lists a wide range of symptoms, many of which (headache, nausea, sensitivity to light) resemble that of your garden variety hangover. However, there are much more serious symptoms (seizure, coma, blood in urine) that can indicate methanol poisoning. The CDC also states that in fatal cases fast or slow heart rate, increased rate of respiration, low blood pressure, and respiratory arrest “occur when death is imminent.”
If you believe you may have methanol poisoning seek medical help immediately. You can also contact Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 or visit WebPoisonControl at any time of the day.