STUMP » Articles » Deaths in the Dominican Republic: Bad Booze? » 5 July 2019, 06:15

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Deaths in the Dominican Republic: Bad Booze?  


5 July 2019, 06:15

“Stick with Beer”: Why Counterfeit Booze Might Be Killing People in the Dominican Republic

Of the 10 Americans who have mysteriously died during their trips to the Dominican Republic in the last year, nine showed symptoms commonly associated with methanol poisoning.

Now, both Dominican authorities and the FBI are looking into a counterfeit alcohol as the possible culprit, officials confirmed to VICE News.

The nine victims died from either pulmonary edema, the medical term for fluid in the lungs, or of a heart attack. At least four of them had drunk an alcoholic beverage at resorts in Punta Cana, Santo Domingo and La Romana shortly before their deaths, according to loved ones.

During a normal distillation process, alcohol producers perform a series of steps to isolate ethanol, the form of alcohol that’s safe to drink, from more toxic compounds. But without regulation, those producers might cut corners to reduce costs, which can be deadly.

One of the byproducts of fermentation, methanol, gets people just as drunk as normal alcohol — but lethally damages the liver, the optic nerve, and neurological and respiratory systems. Oftentimes, once the consumer starts to notice they don’t feel right, it’s too late to reverse the effects.

Not the first time
Over in Mexico, more than 150 U.S. tourists reported passing out and vomiting shortly after consuming small amounts of alcohol at various resorts in Cancun, Los Cabos, Playa del Carmen and other cities between December 2017 and February 2018.

Shortly afterward, local police seized a total of 19,700 gallons of bootleg liquor from black-market tequila operations throughout the country, although it’s unclear if the tourists’ illnesses were related. Of the gallons seized, 235 were found to contain lethal amounts of methanol.

A number of countries have also seen deaths from counterfeit alcohol in recent years, according to a 2018 report from the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking. Last year, 141 people in Indonesia died from drinking a tainted batch of local moonshine called “oplosan.” And in 2016, more than 70 people died in Russia after consuming a bath tincture commonly used by counterfeiters as a low-cost alcohol substitute.

One way, according to Lent, is to avoid cheaper liquors, particularly clear ones like gin and vodka. He said those types are easier to replicate because nearly all liquors, when distilled, come out clear. Counterfeiters then don’t have to worry about mimicking signature colors or consistencies in spirits like whiskey.

Counterfeit liquors usually smell sweeter than regular alcohol thanks to the presence of methanol, chloroform, and acetone. Lent said people shouldn’t be afraid to ask their bartender if they can take a whiff from the bottle they’re drinking from.

“Or just stick with beer,” he added. “You don’t see a lot of this stuff popping up with beer at all. And just in case, stick with beer that you know and are familiar with.”

Brewing beer doesn’t create methanol (likewise, wine doesn’t have an issue) — it’s distilled spirits that are the problem.


Which makes me switch to plugging a book called A History of the World in 6 Glasses.

This looks at 6 types of beverages: beer, wine, distilled spirits, coffee, tea, and soda (or, really specifically, Coca-Cola.)

That’s approximately the order in which these drinks were picked up by humans. Beer kind of made itself, iirc, and is closely related to human discovery/invention of bread. Wild yeasts got into the grains and made magic. Something similar happened with wine.

But distillation requires good glassware, as well as an understanding of the chemical processes involves.

And one can end up with really nasty problems with home stills — from the stills exploding to non-ethanol byproducts that can kill you.

I don’t know what’s involved in testing booze to see how much is ethanol, how much methanol, etc. I’m not a chemist. If it’s booze cheaply distilled and passed off as legit brands, there may be some interesting tracing to try to find the original producer.


It’s been over a week since my last Dominican death post, so let’s see what news stories have popped up since then:

I guess the ATF would know about bad hooch, not sure that the CDC has any specialty with poisoning.

José Tomás Pérez, the country’s ambassador to the US, responded with a letter obtained by CNN and sent to heads of US agencies — including U.S. Attorney Bill Barr, FBI Director Chris Wray, ATF Director Thomas Brandon and CDC Director Robert Redfield — formally inviting their agencies to the country.

The FBI already has a team in the Dominican Republic assisting with toxicology tests of three American deaths, some of which could be related to alcohol.

Those tests are still pending, Espinal said, though he pointed out that Dominican authorities have not found evidence of tainted alcohol contributing to the deaths in their investigations.

But, although American tourism doesn’t appear to have dipped, authorities are hoping to quickly quell any fears potential travelers may have.
“Anything that any agency of the United States government thinks or feels that is necessary for them to investigate to assure U.S. citizens that the Dominican Republic is a safe destination then they will count with our full support,” Espinal said.

As I noted in my prior posts, it is entirely possible that there’s no big epidemic of poisonings (though there could be some spot problems) and that some of the stories you hear could just be from people partying a bit too hard.

It could also be something like bad booze, though.

Either way, the Dominican Republic does have a PR problem on its hand, and it could be the ATF & CDC finding nothing in particular may not really help them. If they did find something, then that could be dealt with, but nothing?

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