Seventy-nine Libyans died this week from drinking homemade spirits in the North African country, where alcohol is illegal. Libyan officials suspect that the homemade liquor contained methanol, and said many of those who survived drinking it were blinded, according to the Associated Press.
Methanol poisoning is infrequent in the United States, but it can be deadly if it's not treated, said Dr. Donna Seger, the executive director of the Tennessee Poison Center and a professor at Vanderbilt University. She said she only sees methanol poisonings a few times a year, and that they're often not from drinking homemade liquor but because children get into things like windshield wiper fluid, antifreeze and paint thinner.
"It's not something you see really frequently," Seger said.
Methanol is metabolized in the liver and the retinas, which explains why people who drink it can go blind, she said.
There are two antidotes to methanol poisoning: fomepizole, which was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration within the past 15 years, and ethanol, which is the kind of alcohol found in safe-to-drink liquors, Seger said. Before fomepizole was available, it was necessary to treat methanol poisoning patients with intravenous drips of ethanol, which, yes, would get them drunk.
"There's nothing worse than a drunk 2-year-old," said Seger, recalling a toddler who had to be treated for methanol poisoning before fomepizole was available.
What About Homebrewed Beer?
As it turns out, homebrewed beer probably wouldn't hurt you, because the simple fermentation produces only ethanol, not its toxic cousin methanol, said Gary Glass, president of the American Homebrewer's Association. Even contaminated homebrewed beer can't make you sick, he said.
"There are no known pathogens that can survive in beer because of the alcohol and low pH," Glass said. "So you can't really get photogenically sick from drinking bad homebrew. It could taste bad, but it's not going to hurt you."
Dale DeGroff, the legendary bartender who became famous for his gourmet cocktails at New York's Rainbow Room in the 1980s, agreed. He said the only way to get methanol during a homebrew is to somehow pick the wrong herbs and accidentally yield methanol during fermentation. But since most homebrews come with kits that include pellets of hops, homebrewers aren't foraging for ingredients, anyway.
"It's hard to mess up beer and wine to the point where you can really hurt yourself," DeGroff said. "You can give yourself a pretty bad hangover though."
What About Home Distilling?
The real danger comes with home distilling, which is illegal in the United States but was popular during Prohibition. Homemade spirits such as moonshine, hooch and white dog can easily be made the wrong way and have added toxic methanol, DeGroff said.
"Bandy-legged guys stumbling around the streets because they were being slowly poisoned," he said, adding that before the Libya deaths, two dozen people had died last September in the Czech Republic from drinking bootleg alcohol that contained menthol.
Illegal moonshine was also a problem 10 years ago in Rocky Mountain, Va., resulting in more than 30 arrests. William Gray "Dee" Stanley, the "godfather" of moonshine, was sentenced to 41 months in prison.
Distilling is a process of boiling liquids that already contain alcohol to create vapor, cooling it and collecting the condensed, concentrated alcohol. It has to be done carefully and using the right ingredients to be safe.
DeGroff said the first "still," or batch of steam that comes off the first boil, is often not safe to drink, so people are supposed to throw it out. The second still tends to be the purest, and some of the third still is occasionally included for flavor, but most of it is cut, too. Even with a properly distilled spirit, DeGroff said it should sit for a while so that the higher alcohols that remain, such as leftover methanol, can evaporate naturally.
Since the occasional home distiller uses a car radiator as a condensing apparatus, lead poisoning is another risk associated with drinking bad hooch, said Dave Arnold, a food safety expert who directs culinary technology at the International Culinary Center in New York.
Still, Arnold said that when done right, home distilling can be safe. He said its illegality is actually "one of the dumber laws we have."
"It's easy to make a poorly done spirit that can give you a nasty, nasty hangover, but it's not going to kill 60 people," he said. "If you do home distillation, typically if you had any idea what you're doing at all, the methanol would come out of distillation first. You wouldn't be drinking that anyway."