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Tainted alcohol isn’t just a Costa Rica problem—here’s what tourists need to know

Tainted alcohol isn’t just a Costa Rica problem—here’s what tourists need to know
[Photo: Joey Nicotra/Unsplash]

To help patients relax, my dentist has a serene picture hanging above the chair in her office. It features a typical beach scene with golden sand, azure waves, and a swimsuit-clad person sipping a cocktail with an umbrella in it. That’s an idyllic idea of a dream vacation, but after a spate of counterfeit-alcohol-related deaths, maybe the person in the photo should drop the cocktail.

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Since the beginning of June, 19 people have died from consuming alcohol tainted with toxic levels of methanol in several cities across Costa Rica, CNN reports. Now that country’s Ministry of Health has confiscated about 30,000 bottles of alcohol believed to be tainted with methanol and issued a national alert warning consumers to stay away from multiple brands whose samples tested positive for methanol. Those brands are Guaro Montano, Guaro Gran Apache, Aguardiente Estrella, Aguardiente Barón Rojo, Aguardiente Timbuka, and Molotov Aguardiente.

According to the World Health Organization, outbreaks of methanol poisoning are usually linked to “adulterated counterfeit or informally produced spirit drinks.” (“Informally produced” means homemade hooches like Nutcracker.) Occasionally, vendors trying to make a buck add methanol, a toxic form of alcohol, to make their drinks stronger. Since methanol can be cheaper than liquor, it can be added to increase the volume of liquid and its potential potency, according to SafeProof, an organization that lobbies against counterfeit alcohol. It’s similar to when high school kids pour water in a bottle of Stoli after raiding their parent’s liquor stores.

Unlike water, though, methanol is incredibly toxic, leading to symptoms including dizziness, confusion, drowsiness, headaches, the inability to coordinate muscle movements, and even death. To make matters worse, methanol poisoning can seem like someone simply drank too much. Victims often delay treatment, and symptoms of methanol poisoning can appear long after methanol has been consumed, according to the World Health Organization. And it’s not just methanol: jet fuel and embalming fluid can also show up in cocktails, The Conversation reports.

While Costa Rica is in the news, several other countries have seen recent outbreaks, including Mexico, where a young woman died at a resort, and India, where at least 154 people died due to methanol-tainted alcohol earlier this year. Meanwhile, one theory about the deaths of nine American tourists at resorts in the Dominican Republic involves tainted alcohol. The FBI and Dominican authorities are investigating, and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York recommended that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention help the investigation.

It’s not just hard liquor, either: Counterfeit wine is becoming more common and now represents a billion-dollar market.

So how do you stay safe when you’re drinking abroad and living out that vacation fantasy? First, pay attention to what you’re buying. Look at the price (is it too cheap?) and packaging (is it sealed?) of the product. If it tastes bad, don’t drink it. Additionally, according to the U.S. Overseas Security Advisory Council, follow these guidelines:

  1. Don’t drink homemade or counterfeit “booze.”
  2. Don’t overdo it.
  3. Don’t compete with locals and their brew.
  4. Don’t let your drink out of sight.
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