'Free' Drinks? Beware of lethal cocktails

It’s 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 her.

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, depending on
    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 from 6
    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 said.
“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 family.”
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.