'Free' Drinks? Beware of lethal
hardly surprising that travellers – especially young adults on a
tight budget – find the lure of free drinks irresistible.
Tragically, some of them don’t survive the lethal hangover.
They are the victims of unscrupulous operators of unregulated bars
and outdoor parties who add methanol to crushed ice, fruit juice and
other ingredients to create deadly cocktails for unsuspecting
tourists. Also known as wood alcohol, methanol is cheap and easy to make.
It is widely used as a solvent in a variety of products, from engine
antifreeze to paint, and has been responsible for hundreds of deaths
in south east and south Asian countries in recent years – usually at
local festivals in poor rural villages.
NZ woman left vision impaired
The latest Westerner to fall victim to methanol poisoning is a
19-year-old woman who recently flew home to New Zealand 35 hours
after drinking 8-10 free cocktails containing a mixture of methanol,
arrack (a coconut flower-, rice- and sugarcane-based spirit) and
fruit juice at a bar in Indonesia.
She experienced shortness of breath before her eyesight failed
suddenly. While emergency treatment saved her life, her vision
impairment is now permanent, according to the doctors who treated
Over the lat few years, two young men living in Perth died after
drinking just one methanol-laced cocktail during an end-of-year trips
to Indonesia (Bali and Lombok). During the same period, a young nurse from NSW suffered brain
damage and kidney failure after consuming several drinks containing
methanol in nearby Lombok. Three teaspoons can be lethal
What you should know about methanol:
- It is a clear,
colourless liquid that is undetectable when mixed with other
ingredients. On its own, it has a faint smell of alcohol.
- As little as 15ml (3
teaspoons) of a 40% solution can be fatal (although
30ml is generally considered the minimal lethal dose).
- With aggressive medical
care it is possible to survive drinking as much as
500-600ml. However, as little as 10ml can cause blindness,
the concentration and individual tolerance.
- Initially, its effect is
much the same as regular alcohol, but a heavy duty
hangover accompanied by severe symptoms generally hits any time
to 30 hours later.
Check before you drink
Travellers should always be suspicious of offers of free or heavily
discounted alcoholic drinks, according to Travelvax Australia’s
medical director, Dr Ed Bajrovic. “Legitimate, recognised brands of
alcohol are expensive and no bar owner can afford to give away
limitless amounts,” he said.
“Before you accept a free or cheap cocktail, look the ‘gift horse’
in the mouth. “That is, check what’s going in your drink and that it
tastes as you would expect it to. Then, keep an eye on what’s going
on behind the bar to ensure a substitute isn’t being used later on.”
Even if the alcohol is the real thing, drinking to excess in a
foreign country with different laws and customs is ‘asking for
trouble’, Dr Bajrovic said.
Drinking to excess risky for travellers
Permanent injury or death may not be the only risks. “Locally made
alcohol may be much stronger than you are used to,” Dr Bajrovic
“Even if you didn’t intend to, getting very drunk or ill could put
you at risk of a serious injury, a violent attack or sexual assault,
or robbery. Friends might not be there to help – in fact, they might
be affected, too. “And, if you get injured or robbed while drunk you
may not be able to claim on your insurance.” Jamie Johnston, the
25-year-old nurse mentioned earlier in this article, spent weeks in
intensive care after drinking rice wine laced with methanol.
No insurance may be costly
Jamie was uninsured and it cost her mother almost $60,000 to fly her
home for treatment in Newcastle. The NSW government used her case to
warn young travellers to take out adequate travel insurance. “A bill
of more than $100,000 to bring an ill or injured traveller back to
Australia is not uncommon,” Dr Bajrovic said. “Medicare does not
cover these expenses, and they can be financially crippling for your
Travel insurance should include medical expenses and medical
evacuation, not just cover the theft of valuables, baggage damage
and flight disruptions.
* The Travel Centre and its
associates are not a medical centre or trained medically. We offer these links as a guide
only. By displaying these establishments we do not offer any recommendation for any
particular service. We just recommend that you get as much information as possible, make
an appointment at your nearest practice, and get the relevant medications and
inoculations. Advance preparation means safer traveling.