This is probably one of the scariest questions that any new homebrewer has to ask themselves, could I poison myself with something like methanol while trying to brew my own beer?
So Can you get methanol poisoning from drinking home-brew beer? Absolutely not! No question about it, it is chemically impossible. Fermentation in beer produces ethanol, this is also alcohol but is not the extremely harmful methanol. Minimal amounts of methanol may be produced but they WILL never be high enough to affect your body in a harmful way.
The worst you will get with drinking the average home-brewed beer is a bacterial infection which will make it taste awful. It’s still safe to drink though.
If you drink beer in moderation then it is a very beneficial drink for our health. Of course, everyone is different and you need to listen to a doctor. Check out another article I wrote on the benefits of home-made beer to your health.
So, why do people still think that this is a possibility? Where does this misconception come from? Let’s look into this issue a little bit more.
What is methanol and where might I come into contact with it?
Methanol is something natural and is found in some fruits and vegetables, but it can also be produced through the distillation of spirits. Methanol is not a form of alcohol that should be consumed in any large quantity but is used extensively in the industrial and automotive sectors. You are more likely to come into contact with it in these types of jobs that if you were to brew your own beer. Things such as antifreeze or windshield wiper fluid contain methanol as well as paint thinner and fuel additives such as octane boosters.
There are also many other uses of it as a very efficient fuel. I used to use something similar when I was in the scout movement to cook on while hiking around the UK.
Methanol can also be distilled from fermented wood and therefore has been known as “wood alcohol” in the past. Methanol is actually much sweeter than its counterpart ethanol and this is why it can be used as an artificial sweetener.
It’s also not unknown for a form of methanol to be used in some commercial beers in order to help preserve it for longer and when being exported. I have read this argument was used to slander some international beers to stimulate domestic sales, but I haven’t been able to prove the stories I’ve been told.
Although formaldehyde, similar to methanol, is used in safe quantities these beers can leave you with a wicked headache the next day in comparison to our more naturally brewed home-made beers.
What is methanol poisoning and how can it affect human beings?
Everyone has heard the famous stories of people going blind from drinking Moonshine they made in the bath. It’s famous because it’s true. This is, I’m sure, where the expression “blind drunk” originates.
Methanol, chemically, is fairly harmless to humans. It’s only when it begins to be metabolized by the body that it becomes poisonous. I know that one of those stupid things to say, but it’s true.
Because our bodies break the chemical down in a slightly different way to ethanol (normal alcohol to you and me) it becomes compounds which are very difficult for the body to deal with.
Methanol poisoning can affect many parts of the body and in particular the eyes and liver as well as your lungs, stomach, and heart.
Some common symptoms beyond the blindness are confusion, dizziness, seizures and even comas. Abdominal pain, diarrhea, and jaundice due to liver problems. Methanol also affects the lungs, so severe breathing difficulties could also ensue. It’s also possible that due to certain medication, a person could suffer from this type of poisoning when another person drinking the same drink would not. Consult your doctor on this issue if you are unsure. If you have any concerns about methanol poisoning you should contact the emergency services immediately as it is entirely life-threatening.
How could I accidentally produce methanol when making alcoholic drinks?
As we have discussed before, making home-brew beer is not going to results in you accidentally producing methanol in large enough quantities to harm yourself or others.
However, distilling other alcoholic drinks do run this risk. Methanol is actually present in wine, for example, but is so diluted with the rest of the wine that it is safe to drink.
When, however, you distill alcohol you need to heat it. Methanol has a much lower boiling temperature than either ethanol and water. So, most sensible Moonshiners or distillers will throw away the first part of their distilled product.
Say you have distilled 1 gallon of a spirit, you would need to discard say two-thirds of a shot glass. It’s really not a lot of methanol. Nevertheless, 2 tablespoons can be deadly to a child and 2 to 8 ounces could have the same effect on an adult. Distilling makes alcohol extremely concentrated.
Is there a cure for methanol poisoning? What should I do?
According to medical directions, speed is crucial. As soon as it is known that methanol has been ingested the person has to be taken to an emergency room. It’s important to follow the instruction of emergency personnel and not to force vomiting unless instructed to do so.
There they will undergo many treatments including activated charcoal, blood and urine tests, CT scanning as well as a possible tube through the nose to remove poison.
There are also certain antidotes in the form of fomepizole and ethanol. As the condition is so serious the patient will also likely have to undergo immediate dialysis to clean the kidneys of any traces of the toxin.
Possible outcome of methanol poisoning?
As I have mentioned before, even very small amounts of methanol can kill. Blindness is one of the most common symptoms and can become permanent even after treatment. Multi-organ damage is also likely and this again can be irreversible. All In all, it’s something that isn’t worth risking, so I highly suggest you stick to brewing lovely beer instead of other alcoholic drinks.
Is it true you can treat methanol blindness with whiskey?
Yes, it seems so. According to the huffpost.com Denis Duthie, then 65, was on medication for diabetes when he drank some vodka at a family celebration. He quickly went blind and was rushed to a hospital. The surgeon cut him open on which point the room was filled with the smell of nail polish.
This was a sure sign of formaldehyde poisoning, which occurs from being exposed to methanol. Ethanol is the antidote to the condition but the hospital didn’t have enough in stock.
A member of staff was sent to quickly buy some booze from a local shop and Duthie was fully cured by a bottle of Johnny Walker. Medicinal whiskey indeed.
Can rubbing alcohol blind you?
Yes, ingesting rubbing alcohol can both blind you and lead to death as it contains methanol. It is highly recommended that you never consume rubbing alcohol and always keep it out of the reach of children.
What causes blurry vision after drinking alcohol?
Blurry vision is a side-effect of consuming up to 4 alcoholic drinks in an hour (considered binge drinking) or reaching a blood alcohol content of 0.08%. It’s a symptom which only gets worse with the continued consumption of alcohol. Normal consumption of alcohol, say one beverage per hour, will not significantly affect the blood alcohol content and will not, in most cases, lead to blurry vision. See my article on how to calculate the true alcohol content of your home-brew beer.
Did the US really try to poison its citizens with methanol?
We are talking about the period of prohibition in the USA between 1920 to 1933, and No, the US government never intentionally tried to poison its citizens. Alcohol is used in many practical ways other than for recreational drinking. The government adopted a practice of making industrial alcohols as used in manufacturing unfit for human consumption. As Prohibition increased illegal production of alcohol from this source, the government attempted to make it more noxious for humans. It is unclear how many if any people died from drinking this type of alcohol.