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Sukant Khurana: Stopping The Carnage Of Illicit Hooch

Can We Stop The Carnage Of Illicit Hooch Through Information And Timely Medical Intervention?

By Brooks Robinson and Sukant Khurana, Ph.D.

Within many batches of hooch produced illegally reside substances that will provide drinkers with the kick that they are looking for but when contaminated, can also result in death. Such illicit alcohol related deaths are not commonplace in all parts of the world but a recurring occurrence in countries like India and Russia. In India recently close to 200 people died of such comtamination. Let us examine illicit liquor in India. Illicit liquor in India is frequently added with additional distilled alcohol and ammonium salt- called “Nausader” in Hindi, to spike up the potency. If the additional alcohol has methanol contamination, in significant amounts instead of it being pure ethanol, poor victims end up paying the price with their health and lives. Methanol can be produced in the distillation process of alcohol produced from sugars, if the distillation temperature is allowed to rise too high. In industrial production, methanol is produced from distillation of alcohol produced by fermenting wood. Ethanol has many problems itself, but rarely causes mass deaths like those recently witnessed in the Indian states of Gujarat and West Bengal. The substance in question is called methanol. The presence of methanol in hooch is usually unintended result of carelessness because the makers of the illicit alcohol will lose customers if it is known they produce tainted product. For industrial purposes, methanol is used in antifreezes, fuels, and solvents. It is also known as wood alcohol because in the past, it was produced almost exclusively as a byproduct of wood distillation. Methanol is difficult to distinguish from ethanol because it smells and tastes similar to ethanol, but is actually a little bit sweeter. Consuming methanol however can have devastating consequences.

Initially, a person who has consumed methanol may feel effects similar to ethanol inebriation. These effects however, will likely be accompanied with nausea, vomiting, abdominal pains, and nervous system depression that manifest in the form of decreased body temperature as well as slower breathing and heart rates. While these effects are unpleasant and potentially life-threatening, they are similar to what one would experience after drinking too much ethanol. If these symptoms occur to you or someone near you professional health-care assistance should be sought out. Methanol poisoning is very treatable at this stage.

After the initial acute effects of methanol, there is a period of quiescence that can last anywhere between 10 and 30 hours. It may seem as though the danger is passed, but this is actually when the most deadly aspect of methanol poisoning is beginning. The metabolism of a person who has consumed methanol is breaking down the alcohol during this period. The products of this metabolism are formaldehyde and eventually formic acid, also known as formate. It is formic acid that proves particularly toxic to the human body. Increased acid levels in the blood and other body tissues can cause severe symptoms anywhere in the spectrum of temporary or permanent blindness, neurological disorders, including Parkinson’s-like symptoms and even death. The length and levels of this acid product strongly correlate with lethality of methanol poisoning.

It is very important to recognize these symptoms of methanol poisoning and seek treatment as soon as possible. If the treatment begins in time before high levels of acid are reached, the metabolism of methanol can be blocked by simply the administration of ethanol, the edible alcohol. The same enzymes are used to metabolize both alcohols and this competitive inhibition causes the more toxic methanol to be rather harmlessly eliminated through the kidneys. Once acid levels in the blood are elevated, more drastic measures are needed to purify the blood such as hemodialysis.

If caught in time, methanol poisoning is quite treatable and many lives can be saved from recognition. This, however, is assuming that adequate medical facilities are within reach. Unfortunately this is often not the case in the rural sector where healthcare can be nonexistent or lacking vital diagnostic and treatment apparatuses. However, arming the public with the knowledge about methanol poisoning, hundreds of lives can potentially be saved each year across India. After all with an incompetent government the buck really stops with the private citizen.

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Dr. Sukant Khurana is a New York based scientist who is working on both basic and applied side of many health issues. In collaboration with Brooks Robinson, a neuroscientist working on addiction, learning and memory, Dr. Khurana is exploring issues of alcohol and addiction. Their public outreach writings relevant to alcoholism are available at:


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