The headlines are scary enough to make travelers pack their own drinks when they head abroad. Costa Rica's Ministry of Health has reported that 25 people have died there this year due to methanol poisoning as a result of consuming tainted spirits. Nineteen local men and six women, ranging in age from 32 to 72, have succumbed to lethal doses of methanol this year. An additional 59 were hospitalized after reportedly ingesting counterfeit alcohol.
The government has confiscated more than 55,000 containers of counterfeit spirits and closed down 10 stores in the San Jose and Alajuela areas since the initial deaths in the region were reported in June. In all cases, the deaths and illnesses were a result of methanol poisoning from illegitimate alcohol—bottles that had been refilled with counterfeit, poorly distilled spirits, usually containing methanol instead of just ethanol. In Costa Rica, criminals will sometimes scavenge empty bottles from hotel and resort trashcans and refill them with this fake liquor, according to Greg Dolan, CEO of the Methanol Institute, a trade association.
The incidents in Costa Rica follow the mysterious deaths of 11 American tourists in the Dominican Republic earlier this year. The FBI is currently investigating whether there is a link between those deaths and tainted alcohol. The individuals had access to hotel mini bars, which had smaller bottles of spirits. Alcohol samples from hotels where the deaths occurred are currently being analyzed by the FBI. As of press time, these toxicology reports have not been released.
"There's probably a greater incident as these criminal gangs get more sophisticated, and they have more elaborate bottling facilities," said Dolan. "Also we are seeing governments tax legitimate beverages more and more, so it's more of an incentive to bring in something that is illegitimate and cheaper."
Methanol versus ethanol
Methanol is an organic alcohol—a chemical cousin to ethanol, the alcohol in wine, beer and spirits. It's also an ingredient used in hundreds of daily, household products—paints, plastics, resins and solvents—as well as for industrial purposes. Globally, the market for methanol is approximately 30 billion gallons, making it one of the most widely distributed and used chemical commodities.
Small traces of methanol also naturally occur in other beverages, including beer and fruit juices. But it's far more toxic than ethanol because it's far harder for our bodies to break it down. Methanol becomes lethal when consumed in higher doses, as little as 25 to 90ml, or one to three ounces. "There's a normal background level of methanol that we're all exposed to in our diets through juices and beer and spirits that have some levels of methanol," said Dolan. "It can be a naturally occurring part of our diet. It's when you get too much concentration of methanol, and it overwhelms the body's ability to process it. That's what leads to possible fatality."
Higher and potentially lethal doses of methanol can arise when alcohols are tampered with during the distillation process. And illicit alcohol producers sometimes deliberately add it to increase the drink's potency.
Oftentimes it can be difficult to distinguish between methanol poisoning and inebriation since many of the early stages—headache, nausea, vomiting—are similar to drunkenness. When these symptoms get more severe, with abdominal pain, difficulty breathing, vertigo, blurred vision, confusion and the inability to coordinate bodily movements, medical attention should be sought.
Whether the recent incidents will have a significant impact on tourism within Costa Rica is unclear. A popular eco-tourism destination, the country welcomes more than 1.7 million visitors per year, predominantly from the United States and Canada, which brings in more than $1.7 billion in annual tourism dollars, according to the Costa Rican embassy in Washington.
"The Costa Rica Tourism Institute reaffirms that no tourists have been affected by adulterated alcohol in Costa Rica, and that visitor safety is priority," the organization told Wine Spectator via email. "The local authorities continue to monitor the situation and work to understand and remain transparent about the investigation."
Visitors to the region are urged to be vigilant of the alcohol they are consuming. It's difficult to simply do a "smell check" and know if there are unhealthy levels of methanol. The chemical smells nearly identical to ethanol. Typically, unsafe alcohols are sold in containers that are unlabeled or appear to have fake labels. These drinks are usually suspiciously cheap.
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Tourists are advised to buy only from legitimate retailers. "You have to watch out for those mixed drinks, particularly mixed drinks where you don't see the bottle, and it appears to be really cheap," said Dolan. "Stick to beer and wine, and if you arrive at your destination, go into a duty-free shop and buy the bottles of liquor there. But those kinds of resorts, swim-up bars and cheap beach places for alcohol—that's where you see more of a danger for tainted beverages."
As added protection, visitors to Costa Rica can also purchase traveler's insurance, which covers medical bills and other assistance that some U.S. insurance may not cover in certain foreign countries.
U.S. citizens can also familiarize themselves with the Department of State's guidelines to traveling to Costa Rica and alerts to U.S. citizens from the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica. "The U.S. Department of State has no greater responsibility than the safety and security of U.S. citizens overseas," a State Department official told Wine Spectator. "We are committed to providing U.S. citizens with clear, timely and reliable information about every country in the world so they can make informed travel decisions."
More detection of methanol poisoning may be close at hand. The Methanol Institute, along with Orphan Diagnostics, a point-of-care diagnostics in clinical toxicology organization in Oslo, Norway, is currently working on producing a test strip that can help regular consumers detect potentially high levels of methanol in their system by a simple pin prick and drop of blood on a test strip.
"We would love to see a test strip on the market where you just drop it in a glass of alcohol and see if it has high levels of methanol," said Dolan. "But that's something years away in part because it can be difficult to distinguish between ethanol and methanol."
For the beverage industry, producers have extensive programs for preventing illegitimate alcohol from getting into the market. It cuts into business costs, but spirits producers, in particular, don't want to see their brands damaged by people rebottling and selling counterfeit liquor. "Certainly some producers have had pretty strong programs pushing back at these groups," said Dolan. "As law enforcement becomes more aware of the issues, and the Ministry of Health in Costa Rica takes more action, there will be more preventative measures all around."