Right now, a vacation in Costa Rica could sound more nerve-wracking than relaxing: More than 20 people have died since June, and authorities are linking their deaths to tainted alcohol.
As of Aug. 5, 25 people had died out of 59 hospitalized, likely as a result of their consumption of alcohol with toxic levels of methanol, according to Costa Rica’s health ministry.
Concern over alcohol abroad isn’t unprecedented. This isn’t even the first time this year that contaminated alcohol has been a concern for travelers.
Ten U.S. tourists have died in the Dominican Republic since March, some reportedly after drinking alcohol from hotel minibars. The deaths resulted in the Dominican Republic Ministry of Tourism elevating safety regulations and enforcing food and drink inspections.
And in 2017, after an investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which is part of the USA TODAY Network, Mexican authorities swept through 31 resorts, restaurants and nightclubs in Cancun and Playa del Carmen, suspending operations at two for unsanitary alcohol and in the process discovered a sketchy manufacturer that was supplying tourist hot spots. Regulators seized 10,000 gallons of illicit alcohol from the company, noting its “bad manufacturing practices,” according to government officials.
Tainted alcohol poisoning incidents tend to occur in countries where the taxes on legitimate alcohol or the cost itself may be seen as too high, Larry Navin, director of government and public affairs at the Methanol Institute, told USA TODAY.
Alcohol fraud can happen by diluting or refilling bottles of “premium” liquor with substances like methanol or even rubbing alcohol.
The Costa Rican government has confiscated more than 55,000 bottles of alcohol and closed 10 establishments in Alajuela and San José, according to a statement from Costa Rica’s Ministry of Health.
“The Costa Rica Tourism Institute reaffirms that no tourists have been affected by adulterated alcohol in Costa Rica and that visitor safety is priority,” Thalia Guest, a representative for the Costa Rica Tourism Board, told USA TODAY on Monday.
Though tourists may be alarmed, there are ways to protect yourself and still enjoy a getaway.
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What is methanol?
Methanol is an alcohol, but it’s not the one used in adult beverages. Instead, methanol is in solvents, antifreeze and in fuel. It’s not safe for human consumption.
“Methanol is the most common contaminate in distilled liquors,” Robert Johnson, chairman of the Alcohol, Drugs and Impairment Division of the National Safety Council, told USA TODAY.
There are a couple of ways methanol can wind up in your drink. One is when enterprises or people add industrial methanol to legitimate beverages, like a bottle of liquor, to cheapen it.
Another way is through improper brewing, which means the chemical doesn’t always end up there purposefully.
“Methanol is colorless and odorless, so there isn’t any way to know if it is contaminating a liquor,” Johnson said.
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Can I test alcohol for contaminants?
Navin said that it is possible to test for methanol with test strips that can detect methanol in drinks.
However, the strips are difficult to create since there is a close relationship and similarity between the chemicals methanol and ethanol, plus they are expensive, and Navin said they aren’t widely used by the public yet.
“Another way to test is the use of equipment like a raman spectrometer, which is an expensive scientific instrument and often not readily available,” Navin said.
The reality is, you probably won’t be testing on-the-go. After all, who is packing scientific instruments in their carry-on?
The Methanol Institute is still searching for a strip that would be useful on the fly.
“Our hope is to find something we can distribute in the developing world where most of these cases occur,” Navin said. “Something that’s less than a dollar per strip, has a shelf life, can be distributed and can be useful in home-brew situations.”
How can I protect myself?
You can start taking precautions before you even set foot in the airport.
Beth Godlin, president of Aon Affinity Travel Practice, a travel insurance provider, told USA TODAY she recommends researching where you plan to stay and checking out reviews.
She also suggests checking on your medical insurance before leaving on a vacation. Specifically, she said to review what your health insurance covers in case of a medical emergency during international travel.
When you arrive, there are steps you can take to avoid contaminated alcohol:
- Stay away from homemade or local alcohol and mixed drinks.
- Stick to canned beer, wine, cider or premixed drinks.
- The safest thing to do is to bring hard alcohol with you or to buy it at duty-free locations when you arrive at the airport.
“If you can stick to mass-produced, well-known brands of alcohol, you will avoid any of the issues that we have seen recently,” Johnson said.
Navin cautioned against consuming drinks that seem like a bargain, especially if they are lower-than-normal list prices.
What happens when someone has methanol poisoning?
The symptoms for methanol poisoning include dizziness, weakness, headaches, nausea, vomiting, unconsciousness, blurred vision and blindness.
Anyone with symptoms should seek immediate medical treatment. Methanol poisoning can be treated if diagnosed within 10 to 30 hours of ingestion, Navin said.
There is a drug called Fomepizole that can stop methanol from metabolizing. It’s effective but not available everywhere. If it’s not an option, Navin said the poisoned person should be given high doses of ethanol – in liquors such as whiskey or vodka – immediately.
“A person’s liver will process ethanol first instead of methanol, delaying the onset of methanol poisoning and allowing for more time to process methanol out of a person’s system,” said Navin, noting that regardless of immediate treatment, dialysis is usually needed.
If a person is treated quickly, outcomes are usually good. But if left untreated, the ingestion of about 1 fluid ounce could be fatal.
Source: USA TODAY