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In a tragic and disturbing development, over 150 people in the Indian state of West Bengal have died this week from drinking tainted alcohol.  Many more are currently being treated and there is fear that the death count will rise before the end of this crisis.  As dreadful as this incident is, perhaps even worse is the fact that these types of deaths caused by poisonous alcohol in India are rather commonplace.  Over the past several years, hundreds more similar deaths have been reported begging the question “What is causing these deaths?”

The reasons this bad alcohol is continuing to be made, sold, and consumed is a large societal issue and will likely take months or years to sort out.  However, if people know what this “hooch” is doing to their bodies and can recognize the symptoms recognize the fact that help is needed, hopefully many lives can be saved in the mean time.

So what happens when hooch becomes toxic and deadly? Hooch is made by distilling cane sugar.  This process needs to be tightly controlled because if the distilling temperature rises too high, methyl alcohol can form. Within many batches of “hooch” produced illegally in India, additional distilled alcohol is added to spike up the effect. The presence of methanol in hooch is usually unintended because the makers of the illicit alcohol will lose customers if it is known they produce tainted product.

Methyl alcohol or methanol is extremely toxic and can cause death in amounts as small as 30ml. When methanol enters the body, it can initially cause similar inebriation symptoms to ethanol-containing safe alcohol. In addition, one may become nauseous, experience vomiting, abdominal pain, and central nervous system depression (which could manifest as lowered body temperature, heart rate, or breathing rate).  If you experience these symptoms it is best to seek professional heath care assistance.  At this point methanol poisoning is very treatable.

After the initial inebriation, there is a period of 12 - 24 hours where it may seem like nothing is happening.  Internally, the human body is metabolizing the methanol into formaldehyde and eventually formic acid.  The increased acidity in the blood and other body tissues has many severe consequences.  The mildest of these is temporary or permanent blindness.  Eventually, respiratory failure and death can occur.  Mortality rates strongly correlate to the length and severity of this increased level of acidity.  Patients who survive may suffer from permanent neurological disorders and may resemble Parkinson’s patients.

If methanol poisoning is identified early on (before high levels of acid are accumulated) the metabolism of methanol can be inhibited through the administration of ethanol.  The same internal machinery that breaks down methanol will be used to break down the ethanol instead and the more toxic methanol will be excreted through the kidneys.  If high levels of acid are already present in the blood health care professionals will need to purify the blood through hemodialysis or other methods.
In summary, if you experience nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, a decrease in your heart rate or breathing, or blurriness or loss of vision after drinking hooch, you may have methanol poisoning.  This is a potentially life threatening condition, but is treatable.  Recognizing these symptoms and seeking help may save your life.

-Brooks Robinson and Dr. Sukant Khurana

(About the authors:Brooks Robinson is a neuroscientist based in Austin, Tx. In collaboration with Dr. Khurana, he is employing animals with simpler nervous systems than mammals, to address mechanisms of learning, memory and addiction. Khurana and Robinson are currently working on a book on alcoholism in India.
Dr. Sukant Khurana is a US based scientist, innovator and author of Indian origin. He is known for his research in the field of sensory perception, addiction, learning and memory, apart from his recent involvement in many high tech sectors of India. He can be contacted atsukantkhurana@gmail.com.)

 Dr. Sukant Khurana and Brooks Robinson 

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