While the FBI investigates what’s killing American tourists in the Dominican Republican… they might have just gotten some insight from Costa Rica.

That’s where at least 19 people have died since early June after consuming alcohol tainted with methanol.

It’s a problem that’s gotten so bad that a national alert has been issued and the focus has sharpened on the problem of bootleg liquor in Latin America.

In a preliminary report issued Friday, the Costa Rican Health Ministry said 14 men and five women, ranging in age from 32 to 72, have died after drinking the booze.

“The Ministry of Health continues to carry out operations throughout the national territory in order to reduce the exposure of consumers to adulterated products,” the ministry said.

Of those deaths, six were in San José, one in Heredia, four in Cartago, two in Guanacaste and one in Limón.  Three of the deaths are still under investigation.

As a result, government officials have seized around 30,000 bottles from brands suspected of containing methanol.  The names include “Aguardiente Molotov” – a name which translates to “fire water” and “Guaro Gran Apache.”  Both products are traditionally distilled from sugar cane.

The World Health Organization says a trace amount of methanol is common in fermented drinks. The problem is that in large quantities, it can make someone very sick or even kill them.

According to Dr. Devi Nampiaparampil, an associate professor at the New York University School of Medicine, methanol is typically used in wiper fluid to clean windshields.

“The problem with methanol is that it’s so much more dangerous than alcohol,” she said. “It can make you blind, it can damage your kidneys and you might not even realize this at first and then you can die.”

It’s so bad that just 30 milliliters, which is about two-thirds of a shot glass, is enough to cause permanent blindness.

“That’s the danger,” she said. “Let’s say you drink too much alcohol, you might know pretty much in a couple hours that you’re sick. Methanol you might not realize it right away, it can happen days later.”

What happens is that the liver tries to get rid of methanol and converts it into something “that is more dangerous.”

“So you can have headache, abdominal pain, all these things but unless you thought you had some other issues you might just think you’re sick, you’re on vacation or you ate something wrong,” she said.

There are a number of businesses that will try and increase profit margins or boost the alcohol content by dilute products with toxic methanol.

“Most likely this is related to some type of manufacturing error, that when they were trying to make ethanol they accidentally made some methanol,” Nampiaparampil said. “So that can happen in some counterfeit liquors.”

Donald Corella is the head of emergency services at Calderon Guardia Hospital in San Jose.

He was quoted in the Argentine daily newspaper La Nacion saying some of the booze tested contained as much as 50 percent methanol.

He also said that even though four people hospitalized survived, they suffered “very serious after-effects”.  Those range from irreversible total blindness to brain lesions that cause tremors similar to Parkinson’s disease.

President Carlos Alvarado took to Twitter where he said he “deeply regrets” the lives that have been lost and has instructed the Health Ministry and other authorities to collect “all possible data” in order to determine who is responsible.

Bootleg liquor has become a hot topic of investigations after the deaths of several Americans either during or soon after their stays at resorts in the Dominican Republic and Mexico.

 

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