There was an intriguing, and yet startling, report in the news recently about two teenagers who died when they decided that drinking a mixture of racing fuel and Mountain Dew was a great way to get high. The notion that all racing fuels contained only pure ethanol was a lethal mistake and became their death sentence.
While it’s true that many racing fuels on the market today are made with ethanol (the kind of alcohol that we drink), it’s also true that many racing fuels still use methanol as the combustion source—as well as other additives that may make them unsafe to consume.
Methanol—alternately called methyl alcohol, wood alcohol and wood spirits—is not safe for human consumption and can be lethal in sufficient quantities. Methanol is the kind of alcohol used in anti-freeze products and to denature ethanol that is used commercially (the “denature” term meaning to make it unpleasant and dangerous to consume, and thus bypassing the excise taxes placed on the ethanol used for consumption as well as the abuse potential).
When methanol is consumed, it rapidly metabolizes via the liver into first formaldehyde and then into formic acid. Formic acid is a lethal chemical that causes permanent optic nerve damage and blindness, as well as kidney damage. Literature states that as little as 10ml (2 teaspoonfuls) of methanol can cause blindness.
The lethal dose of methanol is reported to vary from as little as 30mls (one ounce) to up to certain death if 100mls are consumed. With the consumption of a reasonably large quantity of methanol, a human being will rapidly progress to unconsciousness and death.
The symptoms of methanol poisoning include headache, dizziness, nausea and the usual symptoms of alcohol poisoning—extreme sleepiness, confusion and lack of muscle coordination. The degrees to which these symptoms exhibit are directly related to the dose and over what period of time the chemical was administered.
Fortunately, there are treatment options for methanol poisoning. The drug fomepizole is an antidote and its method of action is to inhibit the enzyme that transforms methanol into first formaldehyde and then into lethal formic acid.
Administering ethanol (the regular drinking alcohol) is also effective to some extent since ethanol reduces the rate by which methanol is transformed into lethal formic acid, thus allowing much of the methanol to be excreted from the body before it’s metabolized into formic acid.
Hearing this news report reminded me that so many readily available commercial items could be used as murder weapons. Certainly in the case of these teens, it’s thought that the poisoning was accidental and unintentional. However, methanol poisoning would be an effective method of murder since it is virtually colorless, and the look and odor is very faint and almost identical to ethanol. The dose is within the range that one might consume in a night of socializing and the initial symptoms are very similar to those experienced by someone who “has had a few too many” alcoholic beverages.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!
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