Tox Tuesday: Mexican resort death attributed to tainted alcohol

Tragedy struck earlier this year when a 20-year-old woman from the U.S. state of Wisconsin died after she and her brother were found unconscious in a pool at a resort in Mexico.

The siblings and their family had arrived at the resort just two hours before. They began their vacation with a few drinks, but according to family, not nearly enough to lead to a blackout. The young man involved recovered, but his sister was declared brain dead a few days later due to accidental drowning.

After the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on the death, the newspaper was contacted by over three dozen others who described similar experiences: blacking out after just one or two drinks at Mexican resorts and waking up hours later with no recollection of what had happened. Some reported that assault or theft had happened to them while blacked out. Many are blaming adulterated alcohol for the incidents.

As a result, the U.S. State Department updated its information site for Mexico, noting, “There have been allegations that consumption of tainted or substandard alcohol has resulted in illness or blacking out. If you choose to drink alcohol, it is important to do so in moderation and to stop and seek medical attention if you begin to feel ill.”

What could be behind the problem?

Unfortunately, alcohol contamination is not a small problem. In 2015, Mexico’s Tax Administration Service found that 43% of all alcohol consumed within the country is illegal, meaning it’s made outside of regulations. This leads to many hazards — nobody really knows for sure what the drinks contain.

Adulterated alcohol often contains high concentrations of grain alcohol or methanol, which is cheaper than alcohol to produce. Methanol, found in antifreeze, is not at all safe to consume. Around two to eight ounces can kill an adult. Methanol poisoning can cause permanent blindness. Other symptoms include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Confusion/Dizziness
  • Seizures
  • Blue lips and fingernails
  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea, nausea and vomiting
  • Liver problems and pancreatitis
  • Fatigue and weakness

Mexico’s national health authority has confiscated more than 1.4 million gallons of adulterated alcohol in the past seven years, according to a recent report by the Federal Commission for Protection Against Health Risks. It’s not known for sure that methanol is what affected tourists in Mexico, but it’s a common adulterant in alcoholic beverages around the world. At least 19 people died in 2012 after adulterated rum and vodka were sold in the Czech Republic.

Drinking safely

USA Today has put together a list of safety tips for vacationers who plan to drink alcohol. Among them:

  • Be careful about ice. Even if the drink itself is safe, ice in countries with poor water quality might contaminate the drink upon melting.
  • If you begin to feel sick, don’t wait to seek medical attention. Be aware of reputable local hospitals before arriving.
  • Bring your own alcohol that you know is safe, or drink only bottled or canned beverages that you watch being opened. Insist on watching cocktails being prepared.
  • Trust your instincts. Something in your drink looks or smells off? Dump it.
  • Never leave your drink unattended, and encourage travel buddies to keep each other safe for a fun and healthy vacation.

Neogen offers forensic drug testing products that can screen over 300 drugs and metabolites in a wide range of forensic samples. Our Alert for Methanol test can rapidly screen for methanol contamination in spirits, beers and wine within 10 minutes.

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