Wednesday, 3 December 2008

The dangers of drinking homemade alcoholic brew

Since time immemorial, people have been making homemade alcoholic beverages and over the centuries, many thousands of people have died from alcoholic poisoning due to unsafe ingredients mixed in with the alcohol.

In the last century, and in this current century, amateur brew masters making homemade brew, have continue to use ingredients that are extremely harmful. In some instances, the victims that drank the beverages went blind and in many other instances, they died. Others became extremely sick and remained that way for the rest of their lives.

The home brew, known as changaa, is popular among Kenya’s poor because it is cheap and extremely strong. A glass of changaa costs the equivalent of about 12 cents compared with 40 cents for a beer.

Ingredients range from fermented corn and sorghum meal to juice from coconut and sugar cane. In recent years, however, and mostly in urban areas, high-octane fuel and mentholated spirit are added for the purpose of enhancing potency to give the drink an added kick.

Consider the dangerous ingredients that went into the poisonous changaa.

High-octain fuel has as one of its ingredients, toluene which is also used as an inhalant drug for its intoxicating properties. The toxicity of toluene can be explained mostly by its metabolism. As toluene has very low water solubility, it cannot exit the body quickly via the normal routes such as urine, feces, or sweat. It must first be totally metabolized into the human body in order to be excreted. It is because of the ingredient, toluene, that high-octain fuel is mixed with the brew. The illegal brew masters simply don’t have the equipment to extract toluene from the octane and they can’t buy it separately so the high-octain fuel is dumped into the vat.

Unfortunately, high octane fuel also includes lead along with other ingredients. It takes very little lead to do irreparable damage to a person who breathes or ingests it into their system. Lead poisoning results in blood-pressure increase and damage to vital organs, especially kidneys, hearts and brains. The victims of lead poisoning who don’t die will suffer from mental retardation. Many years ago when I worked at a school for mentally retarded children as a supervisor, we had a child who only spent one night in a room that had just been painted with a lead based paint. The next morning, the boy who previously had been an extremely bright child who could by memory, sing many operas word for word, became severely retarded and remained that way for the rest of his life.

Methanol, also known as methyl alcohol, carbinol, wood alcohol, wood naphtha or wood spirits, is a chemical compound. It is produced synthetically by a multi-step process. Natural gas or coal gas and steam are reformed in a furnace to produce hydrogen and carbon monoxide; then, hydrogen and carbon monoxide gases react under pressure in the presence of a catalyst. Methanol is also produced from the gasification of a range of renewable biomass materials, such as wood and black liquor from pulp and paper mills.

Methylated spirits; which is ethanol, is very toxic and for this reason, undrinkable and is commonly used as fuel. Methyl alcohol causes blindness and death. It can be breathed in, ingested and even enter the skin and it will cause damage to anyone who has it inside his or her body.

Diazepam has been used as an ingredient of homemade brew. It has a range of side effects which are common to most benzodiazepines. Most common side effects include: somnolence, suppression of REM sleep, impaired motor function, impaired coordination, impaired balance, dizziness and nausea, depression, impaired learning, anterograde amnesia and cognitive deficits. Rare paradoxical side effects can include: nervousness, irritability, insomnia, muscle cramps, and in extreme cases, rage, and violence.

Diazepam may impair the ability to drive vehicles or operate machinery. The impairment is worsened by consumption of alcohol, because both act as central nervous system depressants. People with severe attacks of apnea during sleep may suffer respiratory depression (hypoventilation) leading to respiratory arrest and death.

So why, you may ask, would anyone mix this drug with the homemade brew? Apparently it has a euphoriant effect on those who drink the brew, not unlike someone ingesting heroin into they body.

Illicit distillates can contain impurities which pose cumulative, long-term, risks to health and doctors have warned that anyone who consumed 30 milliliters of the toxic liquor could take up to 12 days to fall ill and die. Others, who drink less, still risk losing their eyesight.

Most people die of respiratory paralysis. The liver keeps on absorbing toxicity but once it reaches saturation, it causes depression in the respiratory centre in the brain and leaves it dysfunctional and the victim stops breathing.

In November 2000, police in Kenya arrested 22 people suspected of making an illegal home brew laced with methanol that had killed at least 128 people. Among the suspects was a director of a small chemical company in the Kariobangi slum in Nairobi that local news reports say could be the source of the brew.

Kenyan police were combing Nairobi and an area north of the capital where they suspected the brew was still being sold despite widespread publicity about its dangers. The brew, which first hit the streets, permanently blinded at least 80 of the 400 hospitalized.

If you think the ingredients used in making changaa is weird, consider this next brew that was made.

In October 2006, a police raid on a warehouse in the town of Voronezh, Russia, intercepted a batch of liquor that was about to be passed off as vodka. Its ingredients included brake fluid, anti-corrosion solution and cheap perfume. In other cases of the vodka found in the warehouse, the illegal brew contained window-cleaning fluid, lighter fluid, de-icer, antiseptics, and cheap aftershave.

Unfortunately, some of the illegal moonshine had already hit the streets. The radio station Ekho Moskvy reported that the casualty figures look more like those from a small war. More than 1,000 people had been treated in hospital in the previous two months and at least 50 people had died from drinking batches of vodka or hard liquor that have been adulterated with the above-mentioned toxic substances.

In November 2001, Illegal homemade liquor laced with methanol had killed at least 27 people in southern India. Another 120 people are being treated in hospital. Eighty-nine people had died despite a government ban on shops selling the liquor.

In October, 2005 at least 14 people died after drinking illegal home-brewed liquor in India’s remote northeast. The death toll was likely to rise because 61 others were hospitalized after drinking the noxious brew in Tezpur, 110 miles north of Guwahati, the capital of Assam state. Such incidents are common in rural India, where cheap, homemade brew is sometimes made with methyl alcohol, which as I said earlier, can cause blindness and/or death.

In Pakistan, in December 29, 2004, poisonous liquor sold by an illegal bar in Bombay killed 51 people and sickened nearly 100 others over two days, spurring citywide raids on alcohol vendors. Police arrested the woman who owned the bar, and 6,800 gallons of illicit homemade liquor was seized in raids at other illegal liquor shops.

In September 2004, as many as 42 people died after drinking poisonous home-made alcohol in the eastern city of Multan in Punjab province in Pakistan. Officially two breweries operate in the country to serve non-Muslim communities, who form only 3 percent of the 150-million-member Muslim state. But potent home-made liquors were manufactured illegally in several parts of the country in often unhygienic conditions and using dangerous ingredients. The home-made brew was mixed with methyl alcohol, the poison that killed so many and blinded others. Tablets of diazepam were also mixed with the hooch to increase its potency. Its over-fermentation in hot weather also made the brew poisonous.

In October, 2007, more than 40 people who partook from the same batch of home-made hard liquor in the Pakistani port city of Karachi, died hours after they were admitted to hospital suffering from nausea, severe cramps, shaking and blurred eyesight.

Four people were arrested. They faced a number of charges including murder, attempted murder and the illegal sale of liquor. I don’t know what the outcome of their trials were.

In May 11, 1999 at least 115 people have died from drinking illegal homemade liquor in Bangladesh in the country’s worst case of alcohol poisoning. At least 30 people were fighting for their lives at a hospital in the capital, Dhaka, and in the town of Narsinghdi, northeast of Dhaka.

Police arrested six people for selling poisonous home-brewed liquor and closed several shops. The government also ordered an investigation into the incidents. Doctors said many victims did not report to hospitals to avoid problems with police because alcohol is banned in Muslim Bangladesh.

In September 2004, as many as 42 people died after drinking poisonous home-made alcohol in the eastern city of Multan in Punjab province in Pakistan. Officially two breweries operate in the country to serve non-Muslim communities, who form just 3 percent of the 150-million-member Muslim state. But potent home-made liquors are manufactured illegally in several parts of the country in often unhygienic conditions and using dangerous ingredients. The home-made brew was mixed with methyl alcohol, the poison that killed so many and blinded others. Tablets of diazepam were also mixed with the hooch to increase its potency. Its over-fermentation in hot weather also made the brew poisonous.

Four people were arrested. They faced a number of charges including murder, attempted murder and the illegal sale of liquor. I don’t know what the outcome of their trials were.

Alcohol is banned in the Islamic Republic, which has enforced Islamic sharia law since its 1979 Islamic revolution. The tiny minority of Iran's Christians, who mainly live in northern Iran, are permitted to make alcohol for personal consumption.

In November 2008, twelve people in southern Iran died after drinking homemade liquor and dozens more were blinded or are in a more serious condition. Of the 92 who were poisoned from drinking homemade alcohol and hospitalized, 12 people died. The dead were aged between 29 and 42. Some of the victims had been at a wedding party which means that the homemade liquor was readily available to anyone who wanted to buy it.

In October 2000, the death toll from a mysterious alcohol-poisoning epidemic in El Salvador rose to 58, with authorities saying methanol was the likely cause. Police in the central city of San Vicente had raided cantinas, liquor stores, clandestine alcohol vendors and pharmacies selling medicinal alcohol and declared an alcohol ban throughout the region for a week.

In September 2006, Nicaraguan police conducted raids, bursting into seedy bars and liquor stores that were selling an adulterated cane liquor that the government said had killed at least 30 people. I don’t know what was the killing ingredient in the illegal moonshine was but it probably was methonal.

I would be less than honest if I didn’t add in this piece that in westernized countries such as Canada, the United States, Great Britain and others, there are fools who are blinded and/or die because they drink homemade liquor that has poisonous ingredients mixed in with the alcohol.

With no quality control, the distillers added all sorts of chemicals and odd ingredients to increase the drink's strength. Most of the victims were poor so they couldn’t afford to buy their liquor from proper breweries. These people died not from merely drinking alcohol but from drinking the poisonous alcohol that was sold without any concern by the brewers and sales people about the consequences that come from drinking that kind of hooch.

A lot of these victims were taking it for granted that they wouldn’t die from drinking homemade liquor. They believed (like soldiers who go to war) that they will only die when their time comes. We are all going to die when our time comes but we don’t need to unnecessarily rush into our demise by drinking illegal homemade hooch.

UPDATE: I am happy to say that British Columbia has passed a law which states that after January 1, 2011, any antifreeze sold in that province must have a bitter tasting compound mixed with it so that anyone who begins to drink the antifreeze by accident will be compelled to spit it out before it will harm them. On December 27, 2017, as many as 12 people in the Dominican Republic died after drinking homemade liquor. A number of others also died in Haiti 


Anonymous said...

Hi, Dr. Batchelor:

Frankly, I hardly deemed it possible to render alcoholic beverages any more harmful than they are in their unadulterated state. Apparently I was wrong. Although chronic hyper-prolactinemia has several causes, one potent trigger is ordinary alcohol. The mere removal of ethanol alone from the diet of alcoholics presenting with chronic high prolactin, can dramatically and within days reduce elevated serum prolactin levels. Concurrent with a drop in serum prolactin, a dramatic drop in blood pressure will also be observed. Both hypertension and hyper-prolactinemia are commony found in those presenting with the terminal Metabolic Syndrome, and the latter in various cancers, both in men and in women.

This blog entry called to mind an interesting experience I had while visiting the Netherlands for a few days in April of 2007. An uncle whose name I was given at birth by my parents suddenly passed away, and having been the benficiary of this man's generosity on not a few occasions my life through, I felt compelled to pay so-called final respects. Friday evening condolences were taken, and with the cremation scheduled for Monday, I decided to devote my Saturday to visiting the markets and museums of Amsterdam, planning but not promising to be back with my aunt in the Utrecht area before or at sun-down.

Later in the afternoon, my thirst having been provoked by both a raw (!!) goat cheese indulgence at a local market and a day of walking in bright April sunshine on the very unforgiving cobble-stone of this historic city, I popped by a cafe for some quality Dutch beer, consisting as much of it does, simply of water, barley, and hops. Besides the crispness and fuller taste afforded by pure beers, the presence of only 3 ingredients helps the student of health better identify the ingredient which causes an untoward reaction, even if the toxic alcohol renders this mission decidedly difficult.

I say, late afternoon, being rather parched, I ordered a pint of barley water at a 'gezillig' cafe, and made conversation with an elderly and very affable Dutchman who, hearing that I was Canadian, took occasion to break into the subject of the routing out of the Nazis by the Canadians at the conclusion of WWII. (I understand Canadians are still very much loved by the Dutch for having liberated them.) The conversation was rich, and several hours glided by as we sipped beer and exchanged opinions and perspectives on a medley of subjects.

Shortly before I left the cafe for the central train station, a couple guys my age took a seat within earshot, and eventually joined the conversation. When they inquired what I, a Canadian not exactly fluent in the Dutch which was too much dominating our conversation, was doing in Amsterdam, I replied truthfully (as above), and volunteered that, though I was alone and a younger male, I was certainly not here to take advantage of the prostitution and drug use for which this city is so infamous. I added, that I was determined to save myself for that special lady. This response was not ridiculed; rather, the prompt reply came, "But every girl is special!" I couldn't help but heartily laugh with the others, inasmuch as it took a nimble and witty mind to respond thus, and instantly at that; besides, I am a fierce heterosexual myself, and have had to battle these passions into submission for years, sometimes with supernatural help. But then, to prove that every girl is special, it was added, a finger spinning the air, that they had "[enjoyed] a hundred girls in the area", if I may paraphrase. I marked the assertion, and the thought flashed into my mind that I'd better keep an eye on these guys: I understand sexual promiscuity is often associated with an assortment of vices in those who practice it.

Problem, however. Fluid consumption induces urination, and I had to visit the washroom before finshing off my last, kindly bought by my acquaintances. I decided to test them. A bag I carried about with me that day I left at the feet of my stool as I went to the washroom, discreetly ensuring first that all valuables were removed. When I returned, these two guys repeated that I ought not to leave my bags unattended anywhere in Amsterdam, in spite of my insistence that my bag was bereft of valuables. The repetition was such that I began entertaining the suspicion that perhaps something had happened during my absence, though I could not just then determine exactly what. It later occurred to me that the bag may have been a diversion of sorts, and that as I took my last swallows of my glass of bitter, I may have been ingesting a neuro-toxic substance added thereto while I was at large. Never vacate an unfinished beverage in a busy public setting, and return later to take the balance. Common knowledge, yes, but concentrating on my bag this vital maxim was neglected.

Incidentally, the cafe men's room did not feature a lock, and while I was losing water (and salts) at the single toilet, another guy charged in and improvised, using the wash basin. I was not favourably impressed. At that very moment the proprietor came in, expecting to witness a drug transaction. She was not favourably impressed, either. Nor, I daresay, was our rude and surprised subject favourably impressed. At any rate, drug transactions are apparently quite common in Amsterdam's public washroms, and for this reason the cafe has removed the locks from the washroom door, and asks patrons to knock to ensure vacancy before entering. With the locks removed, careless pushers can be caught red-handed.

I left the cafe presently, realizing only then that because the weather was very bright and that I had planned to return to Utrecht at sun-down, I had left my corrective lenses at my lodging place, save those shaded ones which I wear ceaselessly behind computers and outdoors during daylight hours, thinking wishfully, and likely erroneously, thereby to retard proven steady deterioration in visual acuity. I must have appeared a laughing-stock: asking passersby for directions to the train station well after dark with shades on! Who does this chap think he is? Anyway, I learned thus that poor vision is not only an inconvenience, but can also lead to some considerable embarrassment.

But we must hurry on. I managed to catch a train bound for Utrecht, and subsequently a bus, and I distinctly remember feeling especially tired and particularly belligerent as my destination neared. This was curious, since I had not consumed an inordinate amount, and moreover alcohol typically renders me rather less sleepy, though not more alert (a subtle difference), and certainly more gregarious, less bellicose and less bookish. So aggravated and novel was this spirit of belligerence, that I nearly got involved in a violent physical altercation with a fellow bus-rider. A confrontation was so imminent the voice of the bus driver began quivering with what I regarded as fear as he prepared to dismiss us in no-man's land - it might well be debated if a no-man's land exists in a country which features such a high population density - to deal with our differences there at the road-side. It will be observed, that hitherto I had never willingly invited a dropping of the gloves, nor ever since. Be that as it may, the verbal exchange soon petered out and I made it home barely unscathed.

As for the morning after, I felt so wretched and awful words cannot accurately convey the sense of doom I experienced. No vomiting, but what can only be very vaguely described as brain fog of an intensely dreadful - and alien - species.

A close acquaintance, upon receiving this narrative, actually brought to mind the idea that my drink may have been adulterated during my washroom break. I had entertained the thought previously, but dismissed it as quickly as it came, not knowing at that time just how dangerous some chemicals, both synthetic and natural, can be. I had heard of so-called date rape drugs being surreptitously slipped into a beverage of the victim, but the bar scene, where such crimes are apt to be perpetrated, always complicates the picture: one seldom knows for certain if the victim was simply and sincerely inebriated, and agreed to sexual relations on those grounds alone, namely, alcohol-induced bad judgment. Having spent a little time in the medical libraries since this episode, however, it is now supposed that adulteration of my beer may well have been the cause of my marked anger, tiredness, and reprehensible 'hangover', a hangover completely different than what I had ever experienced after a couple shameful binges in my late teens and early 20s, and vastly disproportionate to the amount of alcohol consumed 12 hours previous.

Another theroy is, that the raw cheese taken mid-afternoon was the vehicle for a case of food poisoning; or, that the alcohol, combined with a lot of iodine in a dairy product derived from goats exposed to iodine in processed feed, the mineral lick, and on their udders during milking, besides the possibility of iodized salt used in the cheese processing (roughly 50 - 80 times more iodine in iodized salt than in unrefined sea and rock salts...humans are not seals!), conspired to insult my thyroid. After all, alcohol acutely and swiftly suppresses thyroid function, just as excess iodine is known to do. But I digress; and I do say, blogging earnestly summons me.

Hendrickus Brokking

Dahn Batchelor said...


Your experience about leaving your drink on the table while you went to the washroom reminds of a man who before going to the washroom, placed a small note on the top of his drink. It read, "Don't drink my drink. I just spit in it." When he returned to his drink, he noticed that someone else had written something on the bottom of the note. It said, "So did I."