Wood Alcohol Poisonings - Biology

Wood Alcohol Poisonings - Biology

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How Wood Alcohol Poisonings Advanced Toxicology

In the days before Prohibition, New York was trying to update it's coroner's office by improving laboratory practices and using science to determine the cause of death and solve crimes. Murders of all kinds were written off as suicides, or "acts of God." Poisons had become a popular way to rid oneself of a rival or family member because it was unlikely that its effects would be detected.

In 1918, Charles Norris was appointed as the Chief Medical Examiner and was a pioneer in forensic toxicology. He, in turn, hired a chemist named Alexander Gettler who was given the task of developing methods to determine if poisons were the cause of death. Gettler spent time grinding up livers and testing a variety of substances. In the years leading up to the Prohibition, Gettler noted a rise in the number of deaths attributed to wood alcohol poisoning.

Excerpt from the Poisoner's Handbook

Wood alcohol -- technically known as methyl alcohol, but also as wood spirit, hydroxymethane, carbino, colonial spirit, Columbian spirit, and, some years later, methanol -- was in itself nothing new. The ancient Egyptians had used it in their embalming processes. For centuries it had been the essential ingredient in homemade whiskey. Its chemical formula had been identified in 1661 by a chemist who called it "spirit of box" because he'd made it by distilling boxwood. The term, methyl was derived from the Greek methy (meaning wine) and hyle (meaning wood, or more precisely, path of trees).

The chemical structure of wood alcohol is simple: three hydrogen atoms bonded to a single carbon atom (in a cluster known as a methyl group), with one oxygen atom and another hydrogen atom tagging along. It is also simple to make, as industrialists and moonshiners had realized, requiring little more than wood and heat. The process was called destructive distillation. Slabs and slices of wood went into a closed container and were heated to at least 400 degrees Fahrenheit (204 degrees Celsius). As the wood cooked into charcoal, its natural liquids vaporized. The vapor could be cooled, condensed, and distilled into a rather murky soup containing methyl alcohol, acetone, and acetic acid. A second distilling would separate out the pure methyl alcohol, a liquid as clear as glass and as odorless as ice, from the other ingredients.

"Industrial" alcohol was basically grain alcohol (ethanol) with other chemicals mixed in to make it undrinkable, methanol was one of the common additives. The adding of these chemicals was required by law after Prohibition to prevent industrial alcohol from being used as a beverage. Basically, the government ordered the alcohol to be laced with chemicals that would make it undrinkable. As a result, there were many bootleggers who attempted to make industrial alcohol drinkable and less toxic by redistilling, diluting or mixing it with other chemicals. None of these procedures was particularly effective, and people who chose to drink alcohol illegally would be risking their lives.

Why is methyl alcohol so dangerous when other alcoholic beverages are not? Liquors usually contain about 3% ethanol which is often produced from fermenting grains, fruits, and vegetables. In a way to replace now banned liquors during the era of Prohibition, people turned to questionable distillation methods and drinks that were a mixture of ethanol and methanol. Even small quantities of methanol can be fatal, but the risk did not deter some people.

Methanol is toxic when ingested, inhaled or even absorbed in the skin. Methanol , when ingested, breaks down into even more toxic substances, a process called toxification. Enzymes in the liver first convert methanol to formaldehyde which is then converted to formic acid. This process takes up to 30 hours from the initial exposure to methanol, and means that you might not die initially from its consumption, but may experience symptoms a day later. Usually the first sign of methanol poisoning is loss of vision. If the person recovers from the toxins, the blindness is permanent as formic acid actually damages the optic nerve.

As Gettler had predicted, the number of cases of poisoning increased. In 1926, in New York City alone, 1200 became sick by poisonous alcohol and 400 died. Bootlegging of alcohol, much of which contained methanol continued, poisonings became a public health issue. Gettler continued to work these cases, publicizing deaths by alcohol to raise awareness of the problem. In 1933, the 18th amendment was repealed and the program that required industrial alcohol to be made toxic was also ceased.

Exercise (PageIndex{1})

According to the article, which of the following is true?

  1. children were most likely to suffer from methanol poisoning
  2. the Prohibition legalized the use of methyl alcohol
  3. the structure of methanol and ethanol is identical
  4. methyl alcohol is toxic and can cause blindness

Exercise (PageIndex{2})

Select the sentence the supports the central idea of the article.

  1. Poisons had become a popular way to rid oneself of a rival or family member because it was unlikely that its effects would be detected.
  2. In the years leading up to the Prohibition, Gettler noted a rise in the number of deaths attributed to wood alcohol poisoning.
  3. In 1918, Charles Norris was appointed as the Chief Medical Examiner and was a pioneer in forensic toxicology.
  4. Liquors usually contain about 3% ethanol which is often produced from fermenting grains, fruits, and vegetables.

Exercise (PageIndex{3})

What best describes the structure of the article?

  1. a description of how medical examination changed in the 1900s
  2. a persuasive essay on why the Prohibition was not an economically sound idea
  3. a comparison of methyl alcohol to ethyl alcohol and a narrative about why methanol is toxic
  4. Liquors usually contain about 3% ethanol which is often produced from fermenting grains, fruits, and vegetables.

Exercise (PageIndex{4})

Why did it take so long for a person to die after ingesting a lethal dose of methanol?

  1. it took a while for the poison to circulate throughout the body and reach the brain
  2. the poison accumulated in the tissues of the person and sometimes took years to kill them
  3. only some people are sensitive to methanol
  4. methanol is converted by the liver to an even more toxic substance (toxification)

Exercise (PageIndex{5})

What is the relationship between prohibition and methanol?

  1. prohibition caused methanol to be made illegal
  2. prohibition resulted in more methanol poisonings
  3. prohibition reduced the number of alcohol related deaths
  4. prohibition advanced the field of toxicology

Exercise (PageIndex{6})

Which of the following is the best definition of "toxification"?

  1. a process where one substance is converted into another substance
  2. a series of chemical reactions that occur within the blood
  3. a process where one substance is converted into another substance that is more toxic than the first
  4. a procedure where a scientist determines how potent a toxin is

Exercise (PageIndex{7})

Which of the following data supports Gettler's prediction that methanol poisonings will increase after prohibition?

  1. a comparison between the number of deaths from methanol poisoning before and after prohibition went into effect
  2. a toxicology report on how quickly rats succumb to methanol poisoning
  3. a listing of how much alcohol containing methanol was confiscated
  4. hospital records showing how many people had been treated for alcohol related illnesses

Exercise (PageIndex{8})

Complete this analogy: Ethanol is to grain as methanol is to ...

  1. poison
  2. wood
  3. fruit
  4. blindness

Exercise (PageIndex{9})

There are two potential sources for a person to acquire methanol, what are they? (circle 2)

  1. it can be directly distilled from burning wood
  2. it can be harvested from the organs of someone who has died
  3. it can be fermented using rotting fruit
  4. it can be acquired from industrial alcohol that has been contaminated

Exercise (PageIndex{10})

In your own words, describe the difference between a molecule of ethanol and a molecule of methanol.

Top 10 Prohibition Tales

Bettmann / Corbis

It wasn't just the violent Prohibition-era gang wars that were dangerous to Americans drinking homemade moonshine and bathtub gin. According to the Dec. 26, 1922 edition of the New York Times, five people were killed in the city on Christmas Day from drinking "poisoned rum." That was only the beginning. By 1926, according to Prohibition, by Edward Behr, 750 New Yorkers perished from such poisoning and hundreds of thousands more suffered irreversible injuries including blindness and paralysis. On New Year's Day 1927, 41 people died at New York's Bellevue Hospital from alcohol-related poisonings. Oftentimes, they were drinking industrial methanol, otherwise known as wood alcohol, which was a legal but extremely dangerous poison. One government report said that of 480,000 gallons of liquor confiscated in New York in 1927, nearly all contained poisons.

Enforcing Prohibition

For over a decade, the United States barred the production and sale of drinking alcohol in what became known as the Prohibition era. A temperance movement had existed in the United States since at least the 1830s, culminating in the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in January 1920.

The federal government devoted significant resources to curtailing the bootlegging of alcohol, which became a very lucrative illicit business for crime syndicates like the Mafia.

While increasing pressure from sellers and illegal importation of alcohol somewhat limited the supply of beverages, demand remained strong with speakeasies and smuggling networks arising as quickly as they were squashed.

Law enforcement and regulators also devised a new strategy for limiting the supply of alcohol at its source. Bootleg alcohol during the Prohibition era was overwhelmingly produced from distilled industrial alcohols. Officials reasoned that by mandating toxic additives into products which would be converted to bootleg alcohol, the supply could be effectively cut before consumption.

New York's 21 Club, a Prohibition-era speakeasy, had an elaborate system of levers to hide the bar shelves and tip incriminating liquor bottles into the sewer in case of a raid. (Photo:

High demand for alcohol, accompanied by an unregulated black market, meant that sales of now-toxic bootleg liquors continued despite the additive poisons.

"On New Year's Day 1927, 41 people died at New York's Bellevue Hospital from alcohol-related poisonings. Oftentimes, they were drinking industrial methanol, otherwise known as wood alcohol, which was a legal but extremely dangerous poison," a Time magazine retrospective on the Prohibition era reads.

"The federal government had required companies to denature industrial alcohol to make it undrinkable as early as 1906, but during Prohibition it ordered them to add quinine, methyl alcohol and other toxic chemicals as a further deterrent," a report on the era reads.

By the end of the decade, officials in the federal government adapted their strategies for enforcing Prohibition. In 1929, enforcement of Prohibition transferred from the Internal Revenue Service to the Justice Department, which then launched massive crackdowns on organized crime in cities like Chicago, New York and Philadelphia.

It was not until the repeal of the 18th amendment in 1933, however, that the federal government reversed course on its temperance policies. By then, Americans had been poisoned with intentionally contaminated liquor.

There Are Now Over 50 Varieties Of Hand Sanitizers On The FDA's List To Avoid

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has added more than 30 hand sanitizers to its list of products consumers should avoid using due to potentially toxic ingredients. Specifically, the FDA has warned against using hand sanitizers with wood alcohol, as the substance can cause blindness, hospitalizations, and death when ingested or absorbed through the skin.

"FDA is warning consumers and health care providers that the agency has seen a sharp increase in hand sanitizer products that are labeled to contain ethanol (also known as ethyl alcohol) but that have tested positive for methanol contamination," the agency wrote in a warning updated Wednesday. "Methanol, or wood alcohol, is a substance that can be toxic when absorbed through the skin or ingested and can be life-threatening when ingested."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), early symptoms of wood alcohol poisoning include drowsiness, reduced consciousness, confusion, headache, dizziness, and an inability to coordinate muscle movement. Other symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, and heart or respiratory failure. Blindness and death can occur, the health agency has warned, adding that anyone with suspected wood alcohol poisoning should seek treatment right away as toxicity worsens over time as methanol causes acid to accumulate in the blood.

On Wednesday, the FDA added 38 new hand sanitizers to its list of hand sanitizers that had tested positive for wood alcohol, been recalled, or were reported to be made in the same facility as a product that tested positive for wood alcohol. The FDA's list has grown from an initial nine hand sanitizers first reported in late June to include an additional 14 in early July. With Wednesday's update it now includes more than 50 hand sanitizers.

"FDA advises consumers not to use hand sanitizers from these companies, or products with these names or NDC numbers," the agency said.

More than two dozen of the hand sanitizers added to the list Wednesday were made and sold by 4E Global, a company based in Mexico, according to the FDA. Those products were noted to include a Hello Kitty by Sanrio Hand Sanitizer as well as a variety of hand sanitizers carrying both the Blumen brand and the Assured Instant Hand Sanitizer brand.

The FDA warned that while adults, adolescents, and young children who ingest or drink hand sanitizers with wood alcohol are most at risk for wood alcohol poisoning, anyone who used these products on their hands could be at risk as well. "Consumers who have been exposed to hand sanitizer containing methanol and are experiencing symptoms should seek immediate treatment for potential reversal of toxic effects of methanol poisoning," the agency said.

If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all of Romper’s parents + coronavirus coverage here.

Would the Government Deliberately Poison 10,000 Prohibition Violators?

If you wanted to drink alcohol during prohibition, it may have cost you dearly.

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Six years after the 18th amendment went into effect, not only were Americans still drinking, they were drinking more every year. The annual per capita liquor consumption had risen from .02 to 1.2 gallons of alcohol.

Most of this bootleg liquor wasn’t coming from smugglers or from home-made stills. America’s chief source of illegal liquor was legal liquor.

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Several distilleries still produced industrial alcohol for manufacturers. But before shipping this pure alcohol, the Treasury Department required the distillers to add materials that would render it undrinkable. The list included kerosene and gasoline, as well as iodine, mercury, formaldehyde, and chloroform. But the most common ingredient was highly toxic methyl alcohol, also called “wood alcohol.”

Wood alcohol has no color or distinctive odor, and it tastes like drinking alcohol. But when ingested it breaks down into a form of formaldehyde. Drinkers don’t notice the difference at first. Wood alcohol produces a short-lived inebriation quickly followed by a hangover. If lucky, the drinker might experience only a headache, nausea, and severe abdominal pain. If unlucky, the drinker could be blinded (this took only three drinks of wood alcohol), paralyzed, or killed.

Bootleggers got around this problem by hiring chemists to re-distill industrial liquor, which removed the adulterating chemical. This “re-natured” alcohol wasn’t always 100 percent free of toxins. Bootleggers were only interested in rendering a drinkable product that wasn’t immediately lethal. For example, of 480,000 gallons of bootleg liquor seized in New York in 1926, 98 percent contained poisonous additives.

Fortunately, bootleggers usually diluted their liquor heavily, which reduced the danger.

Despite the interventions from bootleggers, Americans continued to die from wood alcohol poisoning. In 1926, for example, a batch of liquor with a high concentration of wood alcohol circulated in New York. On Christmas Eve, Bellevue Hospital treated a rush of poisoning victims, beginning with the man who, trembling with fear, staggered into the emergency room claiming that Santa Claus was chasing him with a baseball bat. He soon died. Sixty more victims followed on Christmas day. Eight died. Over the next two days, there were 23 more fatalities.

Americans knew that any time they drank liquor of an unknown provenance, they were gambling with their lives. Yet they continued to drink.

By 1927, the Treasury Department had grown frustrated. So had the Anti-Saloon League, the powerful lobbying group that had spearheaded the 18th amendment. At their urging, the Treasury Department decided to get even tougher. It ordered industrial distillers to boost the percentage of wood alcohol, which would make purifying it to drinkable even harder. The government reasoned that once Americans heard about the poisonous new formula, they’d avoid all alcohol.

The year before the Treasury ordered higher levels of wood alcohol, 400 people died from adulterated alcohol. The next year, 1927, the annual figure rose to 700.

By the end of prohibition in 1933, 10,000 people had been killed by poisoned alcohol, according to the book Prohibition by Edward Behr.

This number is cited by nearly every source on the subject, though no one seems to know how the number was derived. But given the death toll of 1927, the body count must have at least been in the thousands.

Americans were angry to learn of the poisonings. What had begun as a moral crusade to strengthen the country had turned into a vindictive campaign willing to kill Americans for a crime that would usually involve just a fine. As columnist Heywood Broun put it, “the eighteenth is the only amendment with a death penalty.”

So were the poisonings intentional? Did the government increase the poison in ethanol knowing that it would result in even greater deaths? It’s difficult to determine the intention of long-ago actions. But we have some revealing comments from Treasury officials of that time.

For example, when a wood-alcohol-related death in 1928 prompted a public outcry, a Federal Grand Jury concluded that the federal government bore no responsibility. “Wood alcohol is not a beverage, but a recognized poison,” it decided. Its sale and use were a matter for state authorities.

Theassistant secretary of the Treasury in charge of prohibition said that drinkers on the fringes of society were “dying off fast from poison ‘hooch’.” If the result of these deaths was a sober America, he said, “a good job will have been done.”

The chief chemist for the prohibition unit said Americans couldn’t possibly taste denatured alcohol without realizing it was unfit for consumption. Yet in 1923, he admitted to Time magazine that “it is impossible to detect wood alcohol except by a thorough chemical analysis performed by a skilled chemist in a well-equipped laboratory.”

The poisonings soured many Americans on prohibition, and on the Anti-Saloon League. The League’s chairman, Wayne Wheeler, responded to news of the poisonings by saying “the government is under no obligation to furnish people with alcohol that is drinkable when the Constitution prohibits it. The person who drinks this industrial alcohol is a deliberate suicide.”

The Anti-Saloon League had anticipated the deaths and were not bothered by the idea. Not only had the League’s lobbyists urged the poisoning of industrial alcohol, they also lobbied to remove the “poison” warning on the containers. When challenged by the deaths, a League member said the deaths were insignificant compared to the numbers killed by legal liquor before prohibition.

In 1933, alcohol was made legal again. People stopped dying from poisoned liquor. Many returned to their old drinking habits, but at a lower level than before prohibition.

Alcohol-related deaths didn’t stop, though. Unadulterated alcohol is now the killer, claiming 88,000 lives every year.

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Alcohol as Medicine and Poison Scroll to read more

Courtesy of Library of Congress. On January 14, 1920, three days before Prohibition went into effect, chemist G.F. Beyer of the Internal Revenue Bureau used a pipette to withdraw some bootlegged whiskey for study. The U.S. government, in order to prevent people from consuming legal industrial alcohol, ordered manufacturers to add wood alcohol or other ingredients to make the alcohol taste and smell too bad to drink. But gangsters stole huge quantities of industrial alcohol and failed to remove the poisonous wood alcohol, resulting in death or blindness among of tens of thousands of unsuspecting drinkers well during the 1920s. A label from a container of denatured industrial alcohol from the 1920s warns that the liquid must be “used for art, mechanical and burning purposes only.” Denatured meant that a foul-tasting and smelling additive that had been mixed into the alcohol to prevent people from drinking it was also poisonous and could cause blindness, serious illness or death. A label from a container of denatured industrial alcohol from the 1920s warns that the liquid must be “used for art, mechanical and burning purposes only.” Denatured meant that a foul-tasting and smelling additive that had been mixed into the alcohol to prevent people from drinking it was also poisonous and could cause blindness, serious illness or death. A copy of a doctor’s legal prescription for alcohol issued to a patient in Massachusetts in 1925. The doctor here wrote in a common Latin term, “spts frumenti” or spiritus frumenti, meaning whiskey. The dosage was a “tablespoon as needed.” Under federal law at the time, these prescriptions could not be refilled and were prescribed only one at a time. Jamaica Ginger: Philadelphia apothecary Frederick Brown began making Jamaica Ginger in 1822. It was a common remedy for cramps and stomach ailments of all types. Jamaica Ginger had varying alcohol content, as high as 90%.

Alcohol as Medicine and Poison

The intent of Prohibition was to deter the consumption of alcohol, which was seen as unhealthful and a public nuisance. Not only would that prove nearly impossible to achieve, but the government’s zeal to block the consumption of industrial alcohol would lead to the unintentional but disastrous poisoning, paralysis and deaths of thousands of drinkers at the hands of bootleggers. And in 1930, a pair of men in Boston would concoct an illegal and toxic alcoholic beverage, “Ginger Jake,” that was responsible for crippling up to 100,000 people across America.

The Volstead Act contained two significant exceptions to its ban on the sale of alcohol – liquors dispensed by doctors as prescription medicine (typically whiskey and other hard liquor) and liquors produced and used for religious sacraments (usually wine) by priests, rabbis and ministers.

Section 7 of the Volstead Act permitted alcoholic beverages as a treatment by a doctor who “in good faith believes that the use of such liquor as a medicine by such person is necessary and will afford relief to him from some known ailment.” The law also left itself open to misuse by letting doctors prescribe alcohol even if they could not physically examine the patient, as long as their off-site diagnosis was based “upon the best information attainable.”

That Volstead made the exception for doctors to prescribe and pharmacists to dispense “medicinal liquor” as therapy for the sick went against even the prevailing view of the medical profession at the time. In 1917, the American Medical Association issued a declaration stating that alcohol had no “scientific value” as a tonic or stimulant for healing and “should be further discouraged.” Still, the dubious and outdated view of alcohol as a remedy — a tradition going back thousands of years — was codified in the law and would prove lucrative for both doctors and druggists and an excuse for “patients” to score booze from 1920 to the end of Prohibition in 1933.

Volstead specified that doctors had to obtain a permit from the U.S. Treasury Department to prescribe alcohol, which was manufactured for pharmacies by government-approved distilleries. The department issued pads of numbered and watermarked forms to doctors who could then sign prescriptions allowing patients up to one pint of liquor (usually whiskey) every 10 days. The medicine was costly – the patient had to pay about $3 ($37.50 in 2016 dollars) to the doctor for the diagnosis and another $3 to the pharmacist. Volstead specifically prohibited refills (although not separate prescriptions) and made druggists write in a date that “canceled” the prescription immediately after filling it.

Doctors typically prescribed one ounce of whiskey to adults (less for children, who also were treated with liquor) every few hours for maladies with formal names such as “la grippe” (the flu), “coryza” (the common cold) and “pharyngitis” (sore throat) but also for serious ailments such as high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, tuberculosis and cancer, with the rationale that liquor promoted digestion and physical vigor.

The legal exemption led to a windfall for doctors and pharmacists. Even the AMA, just two years after Prohibition started, rescinded its objection to the medicinal value of liquor, endorsing it as a treatment for a laundry list of nearly 30 maladies. For the Walgreens drug company of Chicago, the popularity of medicinal alcohol sent profits through the roof – the chain grew from 20 drugstores in 1920 to 525 stores across the country in 1929. But Walgreens to this day insists its rapid growth was due to a combination of effective management, its tasty brand of ice cream made in Chicago served in its stores’ soda fountains, and specifically the invention of the malted milkshake by its employee, Ivar “Pop” Coulson, in 1922.

For years before Prohibition, industrial-grade (and undrinkable) alcohol was used in factories as a solvent and cleaning fluid, and to manufacture detergent, flavoring extracts and perfumes. Alcohol had been subject to excise taxes as a beverage in the United States until 1906, when a process borrowed from Europe added “denaturants,” or substances that made grain-based (ethyl) alcohol taste or smell bad, to deter its use in drinks. The “denatured” alcohol could then be used, tax free, in manufacturing.

By the start of Prohibition in 1920, tens of millions of gallons of denatured ethyl alcohol were made for industrial use and considered legally exempt by the U.S. government because it contained toxic additives rendering it dangerous to drink. The alcohol was denatured by mixing it with wood (methyl) alcohol, a harmful liquid that could cause blindness or death if ingested. But bootleggers started using denatured industrial alcohol disguised as whiskey – what would be called “rotgut” for its effect on the drinker’s internal organs – even in the months before Prohibition took effect. The magazine Literary Digest, in its January 10, 1920 issue, reported that scores of people had recently died, including 57 in Hartford, Connecticut, and hundreds of others blinded after drinking “alleged whiskey” containing wood alcohol. Authorities arrested some bootleggers after tracing the tainted alcohol to New York City.

By about 1922, supplies of authentic whiskey distilled prior to Prohibition, and targeted for theft by bootleggers, were gone. With industrial alcohol being made on a large scale, bootleggers starting hijacking it, figuring they could redistill and sell it as drinkable alcohol. By 1923, the Treasury Department’s Prohibition Bureau was already focused on preventing organized crime from reconditioning industrial alcohol for sale to drinkers. The government instructed makers of the industrial-use liquid to denature it by adding four percent wood alcohol, poisonous to humans in very small amounts.

But bootleggers nonetheless succeeded in stealing large quantities to recondition it into cheap booze for unsuspecting drinkers, often those in the lower classes who could not afford high-quality liquor. The government reported that by the mid-1920s, about 90 million gallons of alcohol for industrial use had been distilled nationally with about 6 million reserved for medical and research purposes and the rest meant for hundreds of commercial businesses. However, the government estimated that bootleggers had grabbed about 10 million gallons. Bootleggers, knowing full well it contained wood alcohol, attempted to remove the toxins by boiling the grain and wood alcohol mixture in illegal stills. The wood alcohol boiled and started to evaporate into a condenser at 151 degrees Fahrenheit, while it took 173 degrees to boil the grain liquid. Some of the poisonous wood liquid evaporated but as the public would later learn, it was not chemically possible to take out all the wood alcohol. Even a small amount of wood alcohol remaining, if ingested, attacked the nervous system, for instance, the optic nerve, causing blindness.

In the mid-1920s, bootleggers sold large amounts of the poisonous alcohol mixed with other liquids, represented it as whiskey and other beverages, and people started dying. In New York in 1926, about 750 perished after imbibing the wood alcohol-laced bootlegged liquor. That New Year’s Eve, as people drank in 1927, many jammed Bellevue Hospital on New Year’s Day and 41 died. Hundreds more New Yorkers died later that year. In Philadelphia, 307 died that January, and 163 in Chicago. About 15,000 people were reported poisoned in just one county in Kansas. Up to 50,000 people may have died from the repurposed industrial alcohol nationwide and thousands of others were stricken by crippling paralysis. In 1927 in New York alone, of the 480,000 gallons of liquor seized by Treasury’s Prohibition agents, 98 percent contained poisonous additives, and liquor seized from 55 of the city’s speakeasies proved to contain traces of wood alcohol.

Critics, including anti-Prohibition “wets,” blamed the deaths and injuries on reckless government policies, such as the absence of warning labels on containers of industrial alcohol. Dr. Nicolas Murray Butler of Columbia University accused the U.S. government, which approved the wood alcohol denaturant, of “legalized murder.” The government acted by passing a new law lowering the maximum wood alcohol content in industrial alcohol to two percent. In the weeks after the disaster in 1927, J.M. Doran, head chemist for the Prohibition Bureau, worked on perfecting a new, less harmful but still foul-smelling and tasting denaturant, such as kerosene. The feds later approved the addition of ingredients such as iodine, ether, nicotine and formaldehyde to try to make industrial alcohol too horrible to drink.

By 1930, when the earnings of America’s bootleggers hit an estimated $3 billion, criminal distributors had for some time shifted from industrial alcohol to distilling their own raw alcohol with sugar, yeast and other ingredients, producing yields considered good enough and safe to drink. But also that year, another national wave of alcohol poisoning loomed, this time without government involvement.

Starting in 1928, a pair of Boston bootleggers, brothers-in-law Harry Gross and Max Reisman, started manufacturing an illegal alcoholic beverage based on an extract of Jamaican ginger, an old patented medicinal remedy of a powder mixed with alcohol. But to hide the alcohol from Prohibition agents, the men added as adulterant the chemical tri-ortho-cresyl phosphate, known as Lindol. The odorless, tasteless chemical was a plasticizer used to make celluloid film and explosives. Gross and Reisman said they were assured by the manufacturer that Lindol was safe.

The men marketed the mixture as “Ginger Jake,” a fluid extract of ginger used as a medicine for colds, cramps and malaria. They circulated about 1,000 gallons of the stuff from 1929 to 1930. Thousands of bottles of Ginger Jake were sold as “liquid medicine” with a wink and a nod as a cheap alcoholic drink. It was shipped into Rhode Island and Georgia and eventually sold from coast to coast. But Lindol proved to be toxic to nerve cells, causing paralysis – mostly permanent – below the waist, including impotence in men. It quickly produced an epidemic of damage to the legs of drinkers. From 35,000 to 100,000 people were afflicted with a pronounced, slow limp called “jake leg” or “jake walk.” Many of the injured were poor, immigrants and African-Americans.

Gross and Reisman were prosecuted not under Volstead Act but the Agriculture Department’s food and drug laws for producing a fake product. Both were convicted of felony crimes and sentenced to two years in prison. Gross went to prison but Reisman’s sentence was suspended. For decades to come, those with “jake leg” could be seen limping and begging on the streets of large cities. But they received little sympathy as many believed what happened to them was their own fault.

Within months of the tragedy in mid-1930, music groups started writing songs about the sorry, lasting effects of Ginger Jake. In June 1930, the Allen Brothers, a Tennessee country band, recorded “Jake Walk Blues,” which started this way:

I can’t eat, I can’t talk,

Been drinkin’ mean jake, Lord, now I can’t walk,

Ain’t got nothin’ now to lose,

’Cause I’m a jake walkin’ papa, with the jake walk blues.

That same month, the Mississippi blues group Bo Carter and the Mississippi Sheiks recorded a protest song, “Jake Leg Blues.” The song ends with this stanza:


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What is Wood Alcohol?

Wood is a versatile material that is not just for making paper or as a building material. After the wood is processed, it can be manufactured to make ingredients for food items, for hygiene products and even medicines. Wood alcohol is another wood byproduct. This is a fuel source that you can use at home or in your working area. It is easy to make wood alcohol but is also dangerous if you are not careful. This guide will show you how.

Wood alcohol explained

To give a quick answer: Wood alcohol is methanol and is manufactured from scrap wood and paper clippings. Wood alcohol can be used as a fuel source for a propane or natural gas burner and can also be used as an antifreeze as well.

Distilling wood is an efficient way to turn old scraps of wood into something useful. Wood alcohol is the liquid chemical that is harvested from wood when it is distilled. Wood alcohol may also be used to produce biodiesel.

Characteristics of wood alcohol

Wood alcohol or methyl alcohol is also called wood spirit, hydroxymethane, carbino, colonial spirit, Columbian spirit, and methanol. This was used by the ancient Egyptians in the embalming processes. It is also a crucial ingredient for making homemade whiskey. The chemical formula of wood alcohol was called “spirit of the box” because the chemist who discovered it in 1661 made it from processing boxwood.

Wood alcohol has a very simple structure. It has three hydrogen atoms bonded to a single carbon atom (in a cluster known or methyl group). One oxygen atom and another hydrogen atom seems to tag along. The process used in making moonshine used destructive distillation wherein slabs and slices of wood were heated inside a closed container to 400 degrees Fahrenheit (204 degrees Celsius).

Wood was cooked into charcoal as its natural liquids vaporized. The precious vapor could be cooled, condensed, and distilled into a thick mixture which contained methyl alcohol, acetone, and acetic acid.

This murky mixture will now undergo a second distillation process which will separate pure methyl alcohol. The methyl alcohol harvested is clear, odorless and pure.

Another by-product was “Industrial” alcohol. This is grain alcohol (ethanol) is mixed with other chemicals like methanol, to make it undrinkable.

Methyl alcohol is considered dangerous than other liquors. Liquors contain about 3% ethanol which comes from fermenting grains, fruits, and vegetables. Whereas even small quantities of methanol can be fatal. Methanol is toxic when ingested, inhaled or even absorbed in the skin. Methanol can break down into even more toxic substances which is a process called toxification.

Enzymes in the liver initially convert methanol to formaldehyde and then this is converted to formic acid. This can take up to 30 hours from the initial exposure to methanol. This means that you won’t initially perish from the ingestion of methanol but may experience symptoms a day later.

Usually, the first sign of methanol poisoning is a loss of vision. A person can go blind as formic acid damages the optic nerve. Therefore, you should never drink or use wood alcohol for other reason ns than heating.

When making wood alcohol, you must wear protective clothing like masks, gloves, and goggles. Prepare wood alcohol outdoors or in a well-ventilated area.

How to make wood alcohol

  1. Use a heat source like a fire pit, propane gas burner or an electric burner.
  2. Use a large pot with a cover over the burner and place a thermometer in the pot to track the temperature of the wood and the water mixture. The thermometer will keep track of temperature throughout the distillation process.
  3. Use a condenser tube. Create a hole in the lid of your pot similar to the diameter of your tube.
    A condenser tube is a metal tube that the alcohol will move through as it evaporates. Attach the condenser tube to the lid of your pot.
  4. The other end of the condenser tube should be attached to the lid of an additional pot. This will be your holding container. This container is kept covered all the time to prevent the evaporation of alcohol.
  5. Place the wood chips in the pot and fill this with water. Heat it until you reach temperatures of 78.3 degrees Celsius. Use your thermometer to keep this at this level. Wood will ultimately break down and release alcohol into the condenser. It will slowly drip down into the holding container.
  6. You may distill the finished product again to improve its purity.


Wood alcohol is a byproduct of wood. It was initially introduced as poison with the distillation process very dangerous. However, as time went by, the harvesting of wood alcohol is now simpler and can be done even in a kitchen. But no doubt, extraction of wood alcohol is dangerous because you are working with a flammable substance. Make sure to maintain safety at all times when manufacturing wood alcohol.

Answers and Replies

wood alcohol is methanol or methyl alcohol. It was originally made by the destructive distillation of wodd in the absence of oxygen (pyrolysis).

ethanol or ethly alcohol is usually derived by fermenting grain and then distilling out the alcohol. This alcohol is also drinkable as wine, beer, and distilled spirits.

rubbing alcohol is usually iso-propanol.

Making any of these at home is not economical unless you live where there is
a large excise tax on ethanol, like in the US. Google for 'home brewing' or 'wine making' if that is what you're looking for.

Methanol exposure leads to vision loss, blindness

As little as 10 ml of methanol can cause blindness while 30 ml can result in death, notes Michael Duenas, O.D., AOA chief public health officer. While one small, retrospective case series of methanol-poisoned patients found 62% of patients completely recovered, nearly 25% of patients were left either completely blinded or had their vision eventually deteriorate to complete blindness.

The number of deaths may pale in comparison to the vision morbidity that can go unreported from accidental ingestion of laced hand sanitizer, Dr. Duenas says. Based on the level of exposure, the range of symptoms can be mild or non-existent to severe vision loss resulting in permanent loss of sight.

"Doctors of optometry are acutely aware of this form of toxic poisoning as some people with alcohol addiction have attempted to use methanol, primarily because of its ease of manufacture and low cost, and permanently lost vision because of it," Dr. Duenas says.

In fact, studies suggest about 20-40% of people with alcohol addiction have incomplete forms of neurologically impaired vision loss that, Dr. Duenas believes, may likely be attributable to inadvertent methanol toxicity.

"The public should be extremely cautious as accidental ingestion of methanol may cause many of the same eye findings and vision loss as end-stage glaucoma but occurring in a very short window of time," Dr. Duenas says.

Optic neuropathy can be present in the form of hyperemic optic disc edema followed by optic disc pallor and cupping if not treated on time, he notes. Methanol also has been shown to cause effects on the outer retina, including retinal pigment epithelium and photoreceptors.

If caught early, enzyme inhibitors and hemodialysis to remove toxic metabolites folinic acid to enhance the metabolism of formic acid sodium bicarbonate for acidosis correction of vitamin deficiencies and use of intravenous steroids for optic disc edema, is warranted.

Should doctors of optometry encounter an adverse event associated with hand sanitizer products, they are encouraged to report such episodes to the FDA's MedWatch Adverse Event Reporting program.


Small amounts of methanol are present in normal, healthy human individuals. One study found a mean of 4.5 ppm in the exhaled breath of test subjects. [19] The mean endogenous methanol in humans of 0.45 g/d may be metabolized from pectin found in fruit one kilogram of apple produces up to 1.4 g of methanol. [20]

Interstellar medium Edit

Methanol is also found in abundant quantities in star-forming regions of space and is used in astronomy as a marker for such regions. It is detected through its spectral emission lines. [23]

In 2006, astronomers using the MERLIN array of radio telescopes at Jodrell Bank Observatory discovered a large cloud of methanol in space, 288 billion miles (463 billion km) across. [24] [25] In 2016, astronomers detected methanol in a planet-forming disc around the young star TW Hydrae using ALMA radio telescope. [26]

Ingesting as little as 10 mL (0.34 US fl oz) of pure methanol can cause permanent blindness by destruction of the optic nerve. 30 mL (1.0 US fl oz) is potentially fatal. [27] The median lethal dose is 100 mL (3.4 US fl oz), i.e., 1–2 mL/kg body weight of pure methanol. [28] The reference dose for methanol is 0.5 mg/kg in a day. [29] [30] Toxic effects begin hours after ingestion, and antidotes can often prevent permanent damage. [27] Because of its similarities in both appearance and odor to ethanol (the alcohol in beverages), it is difficult to differentiate between the two such is also the case with denatured alcohol, adulterated liquors or very low quality alcoholic beverages.

Methanol is toxic by two mechanisms. First, methanol can be fatal due to effects on the central nervous system, acting as a central nervous system depressant in the same manner as ethanol poisoning. Second, in a process of toxication, it is metabolised to formic acid (which is present as the formate ion) via formaldehyde in a process initiated by the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase in the liver. [31] Methanol is converted to formaldehyde via alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) and formaldehyde is converted to formic acid (formate) via aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH). The conversion to formate via ALDH proceeds completely, with no detectable formaldehyde remaining. [32] Formate is toxic because it inhibits mitochondrial cytochrome c oxidase, causing hypoxia at the cellular level, and metabolic acidosis, among a variety of other metabolic disturbances. [33]

Outbreaks of methanol poisoning have occurred primarily due to contamination of drinking alcohol. This is more common in the developing world. [34] In 2013 more than 1700 cases nonetheless occurred in the United States. Those affected are often adult men. [35] Outcomes may be good with early treatment. [36] Toxicity to methanol was described as early as 1856. [37]

Because of its toxic properties, methanol is frequently used as a denaturant additive for ethanol manufactured for industrial uses. This addition of methanol exempts industrial ethanol (commonly known as "denatured alcohol" or "methylated spirit") from liquor excise taxation in the US and some other countries.

During the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found a number of hand sanitizer products being sold that were labeled as containing ethanol but tested positive for methanol contamination. [38] Due to the toxic effects of methanol when absorbed through the skin or ingested, in contrast to the relatively safer ethanol, the FDA ordered recalls of such hand sanitizer products containing methanol, and issued an import alert to stop these products from illegally entering the U.S. market. [39]

Formaldehyde, acetic acid, methyl tert-butylether Edit

Methanol is primarily converted to formaldehyde, which is widely used in many areas, especially polymers. The conversion entails oxidation:

Acetic acid can be produced from methanol.

Methanol and isobutene are combined to give methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE). MTBE is a major octane booster in gasoline.

Methanol to hydrocarbons, olefins, gasoline Edit

Condensation of methanol to produce hydrocarbons and even aromatic systems is the basis of several technologies related to gas to liquids. These include methanol-to-hydrocarbons (MTH), methanol to gasoline (MTG), and methanol to olefins (MTO), and methanol to propylene (MTP). These conversions are catalyzed by zeolites as heterogeneous catalysts. The MTG process was once commercialized at Motunui in New Zealand. [41] [42]

Gasoline additive Edit

The European Fuel Quality Directive allows fuel producers to blend up to 3% methanol, with an equal amount of cosolvent, with gasoline sold in Europe. China uses more than 4.5 billion liters of methanol per year as a transportation fuel in low level blends for conventional vehicles, and high level blends in vehicles designed for methanol fuels. [ citation needed ]

Other chemicals Edit

Methanol is the precursor to most simple methylamines, methyl halides, and methyl ethers. [18] Methyl esters are produced from methanol, including the transesterification of fats and production of biodiesel via transesterification. [43] [44]

Niche and potential uses Edit

Energy carrier Edit

Methanol is a promising energy carrier because, as a liquid, it is easier to store than hydrogen and natural gas. Its energy density is however low reflecting the fact that it represents partially combusted methane. Its energy density is 15.6 MJ/L, whereas ethanol's is 24 and gasoline's is 33 MJ/L.

Further advantages for methanol is its ready biodegradability and low toxicity. It does not persist in either aerobic (oxygen-present) or anaerobic (oxygen-absent) environments. The half-life for methanol in groundwater is just one to seven days, while many common gasoline components have half-lives in the hundreds of days (such as benzene at 10–730 days). Since methanol is miscible with water and biodegradable, it is unlikely to accumulate in groundwater, surface water, air or soil. [45]

Fuel Edit

Methanol is occasionally used to fuel internal combustion engines. It burns forming carbon dioxide and water:

One problem with high concentrations of methanol in fuel is that alcohols corrode some metals, particularly aluminium. Methanol fuel has been proposed for ground transportation. The chief advantage of a methanol economy is that it could be adapted to gasoline internal combustion engines with minimum modification to the engines and to the infrastructure that delivers and stores liquid fuel. Its energy density is however only half that of gasoline, meaning that twice the volume of methanol would be required. [ citation needed ]

Methanol is an alternative fuel for ships that helps the shipping industry meet increasingly strict emissions regulations. It significantly reduces emissions of sulphur oxides (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter. Methanol can be used with high efficiency in marine diesel engines after minor modifications using a small amount of pilot fuel (Dual fuel). [46] [47]

In China, methanol fuels industrial boilers, which are used extensively to generate heat and steam for various industrial applications and residential heating. Its use is displacing coal, which is under pressure from increasingly stringent environmental regulations. [48]

Direct-methanol fuel cells are unique in their low temperature, atmospheric pressure operation, which lets them be greatly miniaturized. [49] [50] This, combined with the relatively easy and safe storage and handling of methanol, may open the possibility of fuel cell-powered consumer electronics, such as laptop computers and mobile phones. [51]

Methanol is also a widely used fuel in camping and boating stoves. Methanol burns well in an unpressurized burner, so alcohol stoves are often very simple, sometimes little more than a cup to hold fuel. This lack of complexity makes them a favorite of hikers who spend extended time in the wilderness. Similarly, the alcohol can be gelled to reduce risk of leaking or spilling, as with the brand "Sterno".

Methanol is mixed with water and injected into high performance diesel and gasoline engines for an increase of power and a decrease in intake air temperature in a process known as water methanol injection.

Other applications Edit

Methanol is used as a denaturant for ethanol, the product being known as "denatured alcohol" or "methylated spirit". This was commonly used during the Prohibition to discourage consumption of bootlegged liquor, and ended up causing several deaths. [52] These types of practices are now illegal in the United States, being considered homicide. [53]

Methanol is used as a solvent and as an antifreeze in pipelines and windshield washer fluid. Methanol was used as an automobile coolant antifreeze in the early 1900s. [54] As of May 2018, methanol was banned in the EU for use in windscreen washing or defrosting due to its risk of human consumption [55] [56] as a result of 2012 Czech Republic methanol poisonings. [57]

In some wastewater treatment plants, a small amount of methanol is added to wastewater to provide a carbon food source for the denitrifying bacteria, which convert nitrates to nitrogen gas and reduce the nitrification of sensitive aquifers.

Methanol is used as a destaining agent in polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis.

From synthesis gas Edit

Carbon monoxide and hydrogen react over a catalyst to produce methanol. Today, the most widely used catalyst is a mixture of copper and zinc oxides, supported on alumina, as first used by ICI in 1966. At 5–10 MPa (50–100 atm) and 250 °C (482 °F), the reaction is characterized by high selectivity (>99.8%):

The production of synthesis gas from methane produces three moles of hydrogen for every mole of carbon monoxide, whereas the synthesis consumes only two moles of hydrogen gas per mole of carbon monoxide. One way of dealing with the excess hydrogen is to inject carbon dioxide into the methanol synthesis reactor, where it, too, reacts to form methanol according to the equation:

In terms of mechanism, the process occurs via initial conversion of CO into CO2, which is then hydrogenated: [58]

where the H2O byproduct is recycled via the water-gas shift reaction

This gives an overall reaction, which is the same as listed above.

Biosynthesis Edit

The catalytic conversion of methane to methanol is effected by enzymes including methane monooxygenases. These enzymes are mixed-function oxygenases, i.e. oxygenation is coupled with production of water [59] and NAD + . [60]

Both Fe- and Cu-dependent enzymes have been characterized. [60] Intense but largely fruitless efforts have been undertaken to emulate this reactivity. [61] [62] Methanol is more easily oxidized than is the feedstock methane, so the reactions tend not to be selective. Some strategies exist to circumvent this problem. Examples include Shilov systems and Fe- and Cu containing zeolites. [63] These systems do not necessarily mimic the mechanisms employed by metalloenzymes, but draw some inspiration from them. Active sites can vary substantially from those known in the enzymes. For example, a dinuclear active site is proposed in the sMMO enzyme, whereas a mononuclear iron (alpha-oxygen) is proposed in the Fe-zeolite. [64]

Methanol is highly flammable. Its vapours are slightly heavier than air, can travel and ignite. Methanol fires should be extinguished with dry chemical, carbon dioxide, water spray or alcohol-resistant foam. [12]

Methanol is available commercially in various purity grades. Commercial methanol is generally classified according to ASTM purity grades A and AA. Both grade A and grade AA purity are 99.85% methanol by weight. Grade "AA" methanol contains trace amounts of ethanol as well. [65]

Methanol for chemical use normally corresponds to Grade AA. In addition to water, typical impurities include acetone and ethanol (which are very difficult to separate by distillation). UV-vis spectroscopy is a convenient method for detecting aromatic impurities. Water content can be determined by the Karl-Fischer titration.

In their embalming process, the ancient Egyptians used a mixture of substances, including methanol, which they obtained from the pyrolysis of wood. Pure methanol, however, was first isolated in 1661 by Robert Boyle, when he produced it via the distillation of buxus (boxwood). [66] It later became known as "pyroxylic spirit". In 1834, the French chemists Jean-Baptiste Dumas and Eugene Peligot determined its elemental composition. [67]

They also introduced the word "methylène" to organic chemistry, forming it from Greek methy = "alcoholic liquid" + hȳlē = "forest, wood, timber, material". "Methylène" designated a "radical" that was about 14% hydrogen by weight and contained one carbon atom. This would be CH2, but at the time carbon was thought to have an atomic weight only six times that of hydrogen, so they gave the formula as CH. [67] They then called wood alcohol (l'esprit de bois) "bihydrate de méthylène" (bihydrate because they thought the formula was C4H8O4 = (CH)4(H2O)2). The term "methyl" was derived in about 1840 by back-formation from "methylene", and was then applied to describe "methyl alcohol". This was shortened to "methanol" in 1892 by the International Conference on Chemical Nomenclature. [68] The suffix -yl, which, in organic chemistry, forms names of carbon groups, is from the word methyl.

French chemist Paul Sabatier presented the first process that could be used to produce methanol synthetically in 1905. This process suggested that carbon dioxide and hydrogen could be reacted to produce methanol. [9] German chemists Alwin Mittasch and Mathias Pier, working for Badische-Anilin & Soda-Fabrik (BASF), developed a means to convert synthesis gas (a mixture of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen) into methanol and received a patent. According to Bozzano and Manenti, BASF's process was first utilized in Leuna, Germany in 1923. Operating conditions consisted of "high" temperatures (between 300 and 400°C) and pressures (between 250 and 350 atm) with a zinc/chromium oxide catalyst. [65]

US patent 1,569,775 ( US 1569775 ) was applied for on 4 Sep 1924 and issued on 12 January 1926 to BASF the process used a chromium and manganese oxide catalyst with extremely vigorous conditions: pressures ranging from 50 to 220 atm, and temperatures up to 450 °C. Modern methanol production has been made more efficient through use of catalysts (commonly copper) capable of operating at lower pressures. The modern low pressure methanol (LPM) process was developed by ICI in the late 1960s US 3326956 with the technology patent since long expired.

During World War II, methanol was used as a fuel in several German military rocket designs, under the name M-Stoff, and in a roughly 50/50 mixture with hydrazine, known as C-Stoff.

The use of methanol as a motor fuel received attention during the oil crises of the 1970s. By the mid-1990s, over 20,000 methanol "flexible fuel vehicles" (FFV) capable of operating on methanol or gasoline were introduced in the U.S. In addition, low levels of methanol were blended in gasoline fuels sold in Europe during much of the 1980s and early-1990s. Automakers stopped building methanol FFVs by the late-1990s, switching their attention to ethanol-fueled vehicles. While the methanol FFV program was a technical success, rising methanol pricing in the mid- to late-1990s during a period of slumping gasoline pump prices diminished interest in methanol fuels. [69]

In the early 1970s, a process was developed by Mobil for producing gasoline fuel from methanol. [70]

Between the 1960s and 1980s methanol emerged as a precursor to the feedstock chemicals acetic acid and acetic anhydride. These processes include the Monsanto acetic acid synthesis, Cativa process, and Tennessee Eastman acetic anhydride process.

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