Counterfeit Alcohol Is a Growing Concern Abroad Some Tampered Booze Has Contained Jet Fuel and Embalming Fluid

By Swahn, Monica H. | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), July 9, 2019 | Go to article overview

Counterfeit Alcohol Is a Growing Concern Abroad Some Tampered Booze Has Contained Jet Fuel and Embalming Fluid


Swahn, Monica H., Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


The news about the tragic deaths of several American tourists in the Dominican Republic in May has created an outcry and a media frenzy. As of June 30, there were at least nine deaths with similar circumstances in the past few months. The FBI and Dominican authorities are investigating, and one theory is that alcohol was the cause of these deaths.

The FBI has reportedly taken samples of alcohol for testing, and the hotels where some tourists died have removed alcohol from the minibars in the hotel rooms. But the concerns are growing, and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., on June 30 recommended that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should aid the ongoing investigation.

Many may find it puzzling that alcohol, particularly adulterated or counterfeit alcohol, could possibly have caused these deaths. But, some experts seem to agree that the symptoms and circumstances fit the indicators of deaths caused by adulterated alcohol.

As a professor of public health, I need to note that research now shows that no amount of alcohol is considered safe in terms of your health, and that alcohol is linked to many cancers and heart disease and is also a key contributor to traffic crashes, violence and suicide. Even so, counterfeit or illegally made alcohol brings a new level of risk, as it is not monitored for safety and may include added ingredients, such as methanol, known to be extremely harmful to health.

Fake, illegal and adulterated

Thanks to rigorous regulation of alcohol, Americans may not see or hear much about counterfeit alcohol in the U.S., but in many other parts of the world, counterfeit or "illegal" alcohol is more common and a growing public health concern.

Counterfeit or illegal alcohol is part of a larger category described as "unrecorded" alcohol because it is not recorded in official statistics and not monitored for quality or for taxation. The World Health Organization estimates that 25% of the alcohol consumed worldwide is unrecorded.

Counterfeit alcohol is typically meant to resemble legitimate alcohol, such as finer wines and expensive spirits, in terms of its look, taste and packaging. But there are also other types of illegal alcohol, such as "moonshine" or "bootleg" alcohol, or simply alcohol that is made under less rigorous processes and that have added ingredients to make the alcohol faster or cheaper.

One of the key aspects of counterfeit or illegal alcohol is that producers distill the alcohol more cheaply and quickly using dangerous shortcuts in the process, such as adding water and methanol, also known as methyl alcohol, which is highly toxic. Methanol is not intended for human consumption and can cause liver damage, blindness and death if consumed. Earlier this year, toxic alcohol killed at least 154 people in India because it was tainted with methanol.

Alcohol that has special ingredients added is usually described as adulterated alcohol. Sometimes, those who make counterfeit alcohol will add ingredients not only to make it cheaper but also to improve the taste or strengthen the high. The added ingredients may vary. …

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