At least 13 people have died in Israel since the start of 2018 because of methanol poisoning from alcohol, according to the country’s Ministry of Health.

The agency reported these were only incidents examined in labs, so the actual number is estimated to be significantly higher.

Methanol in small amounts is common in alcohol. But, too much methanol consumption will result in dizziness, amnesia, nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, and kidney failure. Counterfeit alcohol in Costa Rica, for example, has recently been linked to 25 deaths, with a total of 59 patients confirmed to have required hospital treatment for methanol poisoning.

Alcoholic beverages suspected to be counterfeit may contain high levels of methanol. Methanol poisoning symptoms include nausea, vomiting, and loss of consciousness, but severe cases may lead to blindness and death. Severe symptoms do not usually occur until 12 to 24 hours after consumption.

A common problem in Israel
Since the beginning of 2018, five incidents of blindness in Israel have been recorded.

Selling counterfeit alcoholic beverages containing dangerous concentrations of methanol in supermarkets and kiosks is very prevalent in Israel, according to the Ministry of Health.

In August this year, a patient died as a result of methanol poisoning and his blood measured methanol in a concentration of 30 milligrams. In the same month, a woman was hospitalized in the Sheba Medical Center because of methanol poisoning. Her blood measured a concentration of 14 milligrams of methanol. The physical manifestations of poisoning were multiple episodes of vomiting, difficulty breathing and damage to vision.

In July, a man was hospitalized in the Assuta Ashdod Medical Center because of methanol poisoning. His symptoms included vomiting multiple times, difficulty breathing and blindness.

Methanol is often deliberately added to alcoholic beverages as a cheaper alternative to ethanol, which is so-called normal alcohol that can be consumed, according to the Methanol Institute. Drinking just 25 to 90 milliliters of methanol can be fatal without proper medical treatment.

The Ministry of Health listed guidelines to identify counterfeit alcohol:

  • A particularly low price
  • The label is missing the manufacturer’s address or name
  • No manufacturing date or batch number is on the bottle
  • When several bottles of the same brand in a store have an uneven level of liquid. This is an indication of manual filling
  • When the label has a spelling error or is glued unevenly
  • When the cork seems to have been previously opened

An international problem
There have been numerous outbreaks of methanol poisoning from adulterated counterfeit or informally-produced spirit drinks in recent years, according to the World Health Organization.

Countries affected include Cambodia, Czech Republic, Ecuador, Estonia, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Libya, Nicaragua, Norway, Pakistan, Turkey and Uganda. The size of these outbreaks has ranged from 20 to more than 800 victims, with case fatality rates of 30 percent in some instances.

Recently the Costa Rican Ministry of Health reported seizing more than 55,000 containers of suspect alcohol and closing down 10 establishments in San Jose and Alajuela.

The dead people from the Costa Rican outbreak include 19 men and six women, aged 32 to 72, according to the Health Surveillance Unit of the Ministry of Health.

Costa Rica is home to 50,000 American expatriates and annually welcomes 1.7 million American tourists.

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