London - When young London lawyers Kate McCormick and Laura Livanou booked a three-week holiday to Bali last September, they saw it as a much-needed break from their high-powered jobs. The idea was to detox and relax.
But midway through the trip, just four hours after a quiet meal in a bar, Kate, 29, and Laura, 26, both became seriously ill.
This was not a bad case of food poisoning, or the after-effects of a heavy night’s drinking. They’d apparently been poisoned by methanol — a highly toxic chemical usually found in antifreeze, drain cleaner and paint stripper.
Alarmingly, this noxious liquid is increasingly being used as a cheap alcohol substitute by unscrupulous shops and bars in holiday resorts — and also in Britain — either replacing or being mixed with the normal ethanol found in alcoholic drinks.
A clear fluid, methanol provides the same temporary ‘high’ as regular alcohol — but with much more devastating effects. In May this year, British backpacker Cheznye Emmons died of methanol poisoning on a trip to Sumatra in Indonesia.
She and her boyfriend Joe Cook, 21, had bought a 250ml branded bottle of gin from a shop in the tourist resort of Bukit Lawang. It was later found to contain methanol.
Cheznye, 23, a beauty therapist from Great Wakering, Essex, drank fruit punch made from the gin with another friend that evening. They became sick, and by the next morning, Cheznye had lost her sight.
After an arduous five-hour journey through the jungle on foot and then by rickshaw and taxi to hospital, Cheznye was put into an induced coma. But she never woke up and died five days later.
With the summer holiday season fast approaching and thousands of young people heading off for post-exam breaks and gap-year projects in far-flung destinations, parents may need to warn their children of a new potential travel risk.
Imported alcohol in countries such as Bali can be expensive, creating a market for illegally produced and cheaper “fake” varieties.
These may be made entirely of methanol, as happened in Cheznye’s case, or the methanol will be mixed into bottles of genuine, well-known brands.
It is also a problem in Europe. Between 1998 and 2008, the number of bottles of counterfeit drink seized by EU customs officials rocketed from one million to more than 250 million.
Although deaths in the UK from methanol are thankfully rare, the amount of fake alcohol seized here soared by 500 percent last year — with vodka the most common.
Hospital A&E departments are reportedly seeing increased numbers of patients admitted with health problems after drinking tainted alcohol.
A consultant at Lincoln County Hospital recently admitted they were seeing “many more cases of patients coming in having had their drinks spiked, and we are seeing an increase in awareness of the illicit alcohol that’s out there”.
Rebecca Dickson, 42, died after drinking contaminated vodka at her Edinburgh home in 2003.
After just a few glasses from a one-litre bottle labelled Original Vodka Russian Export Quality, she complained of seeing a blinding white light, then fell unconscious.
Producers are known to be illegally manufacturing fake spirits on British soil. Five men died in 2011 after a blast at an illegal vodka distillery in Lincolnshire.
Unlike ethanol, which is created by fermenting sugar, methanol is derived through industrial processes and is far more toxic. Just two tablespoons can be deadly for a child, while between 100ml and 200ml could kill an adult — which can be around five or six small measures of vodka.
The effects, which take between 40 minutes and 72 hours to appear, can range from sickness, severe and chronic headache and breathing difficulties to blindness, seizure, coma, kidney failure and death in extreme cases.
All these are a result of the body converting methanol into formic acid. If enough of this builds up, it can start to attack the nervous system, especially the optic nerve, which transmits messages between the brain and the eye.
“Methanol causes great acidity in the body. In the worst cases, this can damage the internal organs and central nerve system, often resulting in death,” says Dr Sarah Jarvis from the medical advisory panel of UK charity Drinkaware.
“One of methanol’s biggest dangers is the impact it has on the optic nerve. Aside from death, blindness is the biggest threat.”
Patients with the most severe reactions should be treated urgently in hospital with dialysis which flushes out the chemical from the body, or with a methanol antidote, such as fomezipole, which helps stop the methanol being turned into acid.
But if the victim reaches a late stage of poisoning, and has a seizure or falls into a coma, there is more than an 80 percent chance of death. A small proportion of victims who recover suffer long-term effects, including visual impairment and uncontrolled muscle movements.
Kate and Laura knew something was wrong as they headed back to their hotel room after their evening out on the famous strip in the Kuta district of Bali.
As Laura recalls: ‘We had been for dinner, and then to a couple of bars where all the backpackers hang out. We weren’t drinking that much, as the holiday was partly a detox after working 15-hour days back home.’
Kate says they each had four single vodkas with energy drink Red Bull over the course of around four hours. They’d had similar amounts elsewhere on holiday, and back in the UK, without ill-effects.
But significantly, Kate says this time they opted for the locally-produced spirit. “The drinks menus all said ‘vodka Red Bull’ or ‘vodka Red Bull with Smirnoff’. The Smirnoff ones cost about three times more, so of course our instinct was to go with the cheaper drink.”
Around midnight, Laura suddenly started feeling unwell.
The girls headed straight back to their nearby hotel, where both started violently throwing up. “It went on all night, and all of the next day,” says Kate. “Even turning over in bed or just moving our head would make us sick. We felt dizzy and disorientated too, and had to lie very still.
“It was horrendous. The best way to describe it was that it was like being drugged and then run over.”
They also had pounding headaches — another common symptom of methanol poisoning. “I thought we needed medical help, but neither of us could get out of bed or even make a phone call,” says Kate.
Kate and Laura only started to feel better after two days, although their return to full health took another week.
Crucially, Laura, from Clapham, says the symptoms were not like those of normal food poisoning. “We had none of the stomach cramps or diarrhoea you get when you’ve eaten something dodgy. This was just overwhelming sickness, a blinding headache like never before, and dizziness.”
A couple of days later, they were talking about what had happened with some backpackers at their hotel. “We were telling them how ill we had been, and they gasped,” says Kate, who lives in Stoke Newington.
“They said they’d been told that lots of tourists locally had been getting sick due to a spate of methanol poisoning. Apparently, there were batches of dodgy booze in several of the bars.”
A local doctor told Kate and Laura he had recently seen lots of patients suffering from varying degrees of poisoning.
In the UK, the surge in counterfeiting appears to be linked to the rising price of alcohol. “Successive governments have pushed up alcohol prices to drive down consumption, but that just fuels the counterfeit market,” says Brandon Cook, a lead officer for the Trading Standards Institute.
“We are finding a lot of counterfeit alcohol across the country. We’re uncovering it in urban convenience stores, and also in little shops in leafy villages.”
However, methanol poisoning is most common in Eastern and Central European countries, such as the Czech Republic, Poland and Ukraine, says Vladimir Poznyak, a spokesman for the Swiss-based World Health Organisation (WHO).
But he insists that although methanol poisoning is increasing globally, the issue is not out of hand.
“It is a problem, but in terms of the global health problems with regular alcohol, it is not really comparable. Every year 2.3 million people in the world die because of alcohol abuse, but the numbers dying from contaminated alcohol are relatively small.”
Kate and Laura hope their experiences will warn other travellers to be more careful.
“Your guard goes down when you’re away, but the truth is, we all need to be much more aware,” says Laura. “Taking a few simple precautions could save your life.”
Kate adds: “In retrospect, we were so lucky that we didn’t drink more of the stuff. It’s frightening to consider that we could have died.” - Daily Mail