It’s a scary time in Costa Rica for folks who drink alcohol: Twenty people have died in the past seven weeks because they drank counterfeit alcohol tainted with methanol. Costa Rica’s Ministry of Health confirmed 19 deaths in a statement last week and then updated the death toll to 20 on July 22.
In particular, people who live in or visit the country are being warned against consuming six brands identified by authorities, who have confiscated more than 30,000 bottles so far.
The Ministry says it will keep working to find more bottles of those brands of liquor. They include Guaro Montano, Guaro Gran Apache, Aguardiente Estrella, Aguardiente Barón Rojo, Aguardiente Timbuka and Molotov Aguardiente.
The people who have died after imbibing the tainted liquor range in age from 32 to 72 years old. Fifteen were men and five were women.
Several of the deaths happened in San José — the most populous city in Costa Rica. Others took place in Cartago, Limón, Guanacaste and Heredia. The Ministry said in its updated release that most of the victims suffered from chronic alcoholism.
Methanol is an ingredient found in solvents and antifreeze. It is poisonous, even in small amounts.
“The amount with which a person can have fatal consequences when ingesting alcoholic drinks adulterated with methanol varies according to the concentration of methanol in the drink (i.e. if it is pure or combined with other alcohols), in addition to the person’s weight and if it is habitual consumer of liquor,” the Costa Rica Ministry of Health said in a statement.
Vendors who sell the tainted brands of liquor can face criminal charges, Costa Rican authorities said.
“We deeply regret the lives that have been claimed because of the sale of beverages with liquor adulterated with methanol,” Costa Rica’s president, Carlos Alvarado Quesada, said in a tweet. “I have instructed [the Health Ministry] and other authorities to collect all possible data.”
Lamentamos profundamente las vidas que han sido cobradas a causa de la venta de bebidas con licor adulterado con metanol. He instruido al @msaludcr y demás autoridades a recabar todos los datos posibles para sentar responsabilidades.
— Carlos Alvarado Quesada (@CarlosAlvQ) July 20, 2019
What Are The Symptoms of Methanol Poisoning?
People who have endured methanol poisoning will first feel very inebriated. They then experience drowsiness, unsteadiness and a lack of inhibition, which look similar to the normal effects of alcohol. Eventually, they will experience abdominal pain, vomiting, vertigo and headache.
Victims may also hyperventilate and feel breathless. Vision can be affected. In severe cases, they will be unable to move their body normally, the World Health Organization says. Coma, convulsions and death may follow.
Symptoms may not appear until long after the methanol was consumed, making it more difficult to know if the poisoning has caused health problems. When outbreaks of methanol poisoning occur, they can overwhelm local medical facilities.
Tainted Liquor Is An International Issue
Costa Rica isn’t the only country seeing deaths related to tainted liquor. There have been problems in about a dozen other countries, including India, Norway, Turkey and the Czech Republic. The World Health Organization said in 2014 that victims of outbreaks have ranged from 20-800 victims, with fatality rates in some cases spiking over 30%. Outbreaks have occurred in all regions, it warns.
The issue in India made headlines in February 2019 because a massive amount of people were affected: Toxic moonshine killed 154 people and sickened at least 200 more.
Moonshine is a homemade liquor with unregulated amounts of ingredients determined by the maker. Methanol is often added to distilled spirits to make people feel inebriated. It enables sellers to increase the amount of liquid and its potential potency.
The bottom line: Don’t purchase unregulated or homemade liquors. Also, be aware of the liquor brands the authorities have named specifically in their warnings.