Tainted alcohol kills 20 in Costa Rica: Here’s how to protect yourself

Rachel Grumman Bender
Beauty and Style Editor
Alcohol tainted with methanol has killed 20 people in Costa Rica. (Photo: Getty Images)

At least 20 people — ages 32 to 72 — have died from drinking alcohol tainted with methanol in Costa Rica, according to the Costa Rican Health Ministry, just weeks after nine people were reported dead in the Dominican Republic.

“The deceased, all over 30, are divided into 15 men and 5 women,” stated a press release issued by the Health Ministry, “Eighteen of them Costa Ricans, a Nicaraguan and a deceased still under investigation.”

The government agency has confiscated approximately 30,000 bottles from six different brands of alcohol, according to The Washington Post. Names of the tainted products include Guaro Montano, Guaro Gran Apache, Star Welsh, Aguardiente Barón Rojo, Aguardiente Timbuka and Aguardiente Molotov. The agency also urged people not to purchase or consume any of these alcohol brands.

Methanol, which is wood alcohol, is sometimes added to illegally-produced booze, such as bootleg liquor. While it’s chemically similar to ethanol (the alcohol people consume), methanol can be toxic. Craig Smollin, MD, the medical director of the San Francisco Division of the California Poison Control System at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, tells Yahoo Lifestyle: “Methanol is metabolized by your body into other substances that are toxic to your body” — namely, formaldehyde and formic acid.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, about two to eight ounces of methanol can be deadly for an adult.

As methanol gets metabolized, the person will start to have symptoms, including abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting, notes Smollin. Eventually, the patient can develop vision changes, including loss of vision — which can be permanent — as well as start to hyperventilate. “Hyperventilation is really because methanol is converted into an acid so the body develops acidosis, which can cause other problems, including death,” explains Smollin.

So what can people do to protect themselves while traveling abroad, as well as in their own country? “First and foremost is trying to think about prevention,” says Smollin. “It can be difficult to know whether or not the alcohol you’re purchasing is illegal. But there may be some clues — if it doesn’t come in a standard container or has an odd label or label that has typographical errors — that it’s not a regulated product.”

Smollin recommends asking to see the bottle before the bartender pours your drink in front of you. “If it’s an unlabeled bottle, that’s something to be suspicious of,” he says. “But a globally-recognized manufacturer you are familiar with, it’s much less likely.”

If you or a loved one starts experiencing symptoms after consuming alcohol, get medical help right away. “Most people who develop symptoms from methanol will have some delays — it takes a while for the methanol to be converted into toxic metabolites,” notes Smollin. “Look for breathing fast, lack of coordination, visual changes, but especially in the context of drinking of alcohol, those might be similar to feeling drunk. If concerned, you want to seek medical attention.”

This isn’t the first time a popular vacation spot has been linked to suspicious deaths. At least 36 Americans have died under mysterious circumstances in the Dominican Republic since January 2018, according to the New York Post. Although the cause of the deaths is still being investigated, bootleg liquor is a suspected culprit.

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