Counterfeit Products Kill

From: Mail Online

Could your holiday cocktail cost you your life? A toxic ingredient in cheap foreign drinks is poisoning unsuspecting tourists

  • Methanol provides the same ‘high’ as regular alcohol but is much cheaper

  • It’s effects are devastating – and can be fatal

  • ‘Fake’ drinks made with the clear fluid are a problem in both Asia and Europe

By Anna Pointer

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 per cent  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 per  cent 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.’


Most of us would struggle to tell the  difference between a regular drink and a fake – especially as methanol has  little odour, says Dr Sarah Jarvis from Drinkaware.

‘People assume these kinds of chemicals are  bright purple or something, but they basically look and taste the same as normal  alcohol.’

But there are several steps you can take to  guard against drinking poisonous alcohol. Dr Jarvis says one of the key warning  signs is price.

‘If a deal looks too good to be true, it  almost certainly is,’ she says. ‘Check the quality of the label on bottles, and  always opt for branded versions where possible. Also look for any seals or caps  that are broken.’

And if in doubt, stick to bottled  beers.


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