Pursuit of intoxication leads to accidental deaths in Russia

II  JAN 8 2017

Lewis Germain

 The consumption of alcohol is, and has long been, a popular practice; the World Health Organisation estimates that worldwide, each individual over the age of 15 consumes an average of 6.2 litres of pure alcohol per year from alcoholic drinks. Rather worryingly, this statistic is 10 to 12 and a half litres for the UK, and even higher for Russia: a hankering for alcohol that has led to new desperate attempts to consume it.

Staggeringly, 72 people in Siberia, Russia have died after consuming a bath lotion they believed to contain ethanol, the substance in alcoholic drinks that gets us drunk. It turned out, in fact, that it was not ethanol in the lotion, but methanol, a substance poisonous to humans if it is ingested.

Methanol is found in common household products such as anti-freeze and windscreen washer, as well as certain varnishes and solvents. The good news is, however, that these products are safe for us to use if done so correctly, which particularly means not introducing them into our bodies. This can happen by ingestion, but also inhalation, so it’s important not to make a habit of being exposed to the ‘fumes’ without adequate protection.

Methanol poisoning

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that there have been fatalities from unintentionally consuming methanol instead of ethanol. In 2013, a British backpacker died in Sumatra, Indonesia after consuming gin that had been mixed with methanol, likely with the intention of strengthening it. This is a common practice in popular tourist destinations like Indonesia, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office issued advice to take care when buying spirit-based alcoholic drinks abroad.

Safe and unsafe alcohol consumption

These incidents highlight, firstly, the importance of consuming only properly regulated alcohol, and secondly, doing so in safe amounts. It is perfectly safe for a healthy person to consume licensed alcoholic drinks, but moderation is key. It is recommended that consumption should not exceed 14 units per week for both men and women, spread over at least 3 days. This equates to around 6 pints of regular strength beer or lager, or 5 large glasses of wine per week.

When the recommended weekly intake of alcohol is exceeded regularly, however, problems begin to arise. It is known to be associated with over 200 physical and mental health problems, including liver failure, heart disease and cancer of the mouth, oesophagus, stomach and intestine, to name just a few. As well as these longer term consequences, short term ones such as violence and unintentional injury can occur. These have a significant impact on health care, with alcohol implicated in a large proportion of admissions to A&E.

For more information on methanol, alcohol and the safe consumption of the latter, please visit the links below. If you, or anyone else, consumes a potentially poisonous substance, it could be a medical emergency and it is important to dial 999. Additionally, if you have concerns about the amount of alcohol you consume, your GP is a good place to seek advice and support.

Any opinions above are the author's alone and may not represent those of the NHS or Mind and Medicine. Any comment is based on the best available evidence at the time of writing. All data is based on externally validated studies unless expressed otherwise. Novel data is representative of sample surveyed. Online recommendation is no substitute for seeing your own doctor and should not be taken as medical advice.