Methylated spirits. They’re useful for quite a few things. Cleaning windows, compact camping cookware and even killing mealybugs. We also know that you shouldn’t drink it, because it’s rather toxic. But why is toxic?
Well, the simple answer is so that people don’t drink it! Methylated spirits are about 95% ethanol (which we would classify as very strong Vodka), with a bit of methanol added to make it undrinkable. Ethanol and methanol are very similar-looking alcohols, with only one more carbon atom in ethanol than methanol. However, while ethanol usually won’t do much worse than give you a nasty headache, dehydration and the constant need to rid yourself of your stomach contents, methanol can cause blindness or even death. The reason methanol is so toxic is because of it reacts inside the body.
Chemistry time! Methanol is what we call a primary alcohol, and primary alcohols can oxidise (put simply, gain oxygen) to form aldehydes, which can then oxidise further to form carboxylic acids, such as acetic acid (vinegar). When we consume methanol, it is absorbed into the liver where is reacts with an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase. The alcohol dehydrogenase oxidises the methanol to methanal (an aldehyde), more commonly known as formaldehyde. Yes, that’s correct: your body is forming the same stuff that they preserve cadavers in … lovely image. Amazingly, it’s not the formaldehyde that kills you though! The body can quite easily get rid of the formaldehyde, but if it has no use for it, it oxidises again to create formic acid (a type of carboxylic acid). Formic acid is actually the same compound that ants give off when under attack and has that lovely characteristic ‘squashed-ant’ smell. If the formic acid builds up in the blood, this is what causes the deadly side-effects of methanol.
So, in all seriousness, don’t drink metho. Not only will it taste terrible, but it’ll also most likely kill you by creating ‘squashed ant’ acid in your bloodstream. Not a pretty picture.
On a lighter note, what kind of ethanol-containing beverages do you enjoy consuming? Personally I like a glass of sparkling rose. Leave a bubbly comment below 🙂