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Strong alcoholic beverages (e.g. moonshine) are reported to have caused blindness amongst some people.
How exactly can alcohol make someone go blind?
Is that because different forms of "rubbing" and homemade alcohol: ethanol, methanol, isopropyl and moonshine cause damage to the optic nerve?
Disclaimer: I am interested in what exactly is the biological process of certain alcohols on the optic nerves and what in particular triggers the blindness.
Methanol is rapidly absorbed not only after oral ingestion but by inhalation or after cutaneous exposure and becomes oxidised in the liver to formaldehyde and to formic acid, metabolites which are more toxic than methanol itself and which inhibit mitochondrial ATP production.
Histopathologically, circumscribed myelin damage behind the lamina cribrosa of the optic nerve has been reported. The electrophysiological changes following acute methanol ingestion suggest that methanol affects photoreceptors, Muller cells, and the retrolaminar portion of the optic nerve.
Source : http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1771266/
Several years ago there were numerous cases of blindness and death due to Methanol in Estonia.
If you ask : What exactly happened?
Waste from wood (sawdust, shavings), and other cellulose-containing materials (paper, rags, etc.) can be processed by applying excessive heat and acids, resulting in degraded cellulose into sugar (glucose). Sugar obtained is fermented to get ethanol. However as a side-effect, some methanol is produced as well. This compound is not safe to drink. Basically, someone sold it (illegally) as an ethanol drink (I am not sure if they stole it and tried to monetize it this way.).
There was a (stupid) joke that somewhat popularized knowing about this problem:
(roughly translates to) "Guys, let's drink faster, it is getting dark."
Other impurities in the alcohol could have similar effect, but I can confirm at least the methanol part.
How Alcohol Affects Your Eyes
Bryan Wolynski, OD, is a board-certified community optometrist who has been in the eye care field for over 30 years. He works in private practice in New York City.
Although light consumption of alcohol probably won't cause any health problems, drinking alcohol excessively can have harmful effects on your body, including your eyes. Heavy drinking of alcohol may cause problems with your vision and overall eye health including the following conditions.
Excessive alcohol consumption also affects your eyesight
Excessive alcohol consumption can have temporary and long-term effects on your vision. Temporary effects of excessive alcohol and eyesight result in blurry and distorted vision. But it is the long-term effects of excessive alcohol consumption you should be more concerned with.
As mentioned, the condition is referred to as toxic amblyopia, and it can lead to permanent vision loss and blindness.
If you only have a glass or two a night you probably don&rsquot have to worry about your vision becoming permanently lost due to alcohol. But if you exceed the recommended guidelines of alcohol consumption and are often binge drinking, you could be putting your vision and eyesight in serious danger.
But why exactly is alcohol consumption a threat to your vision? Well, alcohol slows down the communication between neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters are necessary for the brain to communicate with the rest of the body and vice versa. A delayed communication between the brain and the eyes causes the muscles in the eyes to weaken and lose coordination. This leads to double or distorted vision.
Excessive alcohol also slows down the reaction time of the pupils, meaning they cannot dilate and will constrict to allow in appropriate levels of light. In this situation, the ability to see colors and shades becomes impaired.
Other side effects of alcohol on your vision include:
- Light sensitivity due to migraines
- Red or bloodshot eyes due to alcohol and swelling blood vessels in the eyes
- Rapid eye movement &ndash involuntary eye movement
The Biological Causes of Alcoholism
So how do people get addicted to alcohol anyway? The recent contributions of science and medicine during the past 50-60 years have greatly advanced our understanding of alcoholism. We are beginning to understand the biological forces that affect behavior (both humans and animals). Addiction is easier to understand when we consider that our biology programs us to pursue and repeat pleasurable experiences. However, we are not slaves to our biology. The unrestrained pursuit of pleasure represents a type of developmental immaturity as depicted in the classic story of Peter Pan. Therefore, psychological, socio-cultural, and spiritual factors influence whether we mature beyond our biological limitations. Until fairly recently, people with addictive disorders such as alcoholism were viewed as selfish, weak-willed folks. They seemed to behave badly without regard for themselves, or others. People with addictive problems will tell you, willpower is not enough. As we will soon see, our biological make-up explains why this is so.
Advancements in neurobiological research have changed the way we view addiction. Addiction is no longer limited to problematic substance use. We now know that certain activities can also be addictive (sex, gambling). This is because addiction is a problem of brain functioning. We become addicted to the chemicals our brain releases, not the substance or activity that causes this release. Our genetics greatly determine our brain functioning.
The American Society of Addictions Medicine (ASAM) is the nation's largest professional society of addiction physicians. ASAM is dedicated to treating and preventing addiction. ASAM recently released (August 15, 2011) a new definition of addiction. It states that genetics account for about 50% of the likelihood that someone will develop an addiction . This ASAM definition of addiction describes addiction as a "chronic disease of the brain." This is quite different from our own definition.
It remains controversial whether or not we should reduce addiction to a "chronic disease of the brain." Nevertheless, there is strong evidence to suggest a genetic component to addiction. Clearly, addiction does not develop merely because someone is weak-willed. Addicted persons do not choose their genetics. Therefore, they do not control whether they are at risk for developing an addiction.
Although our biological make-up is a powerful influence, we are not slaves to our biology. In other words, our biology does not completely drive our behavior. People are certainly capable of choosing recovery over addiction. This makes addictive disorders very similar to other diseases and disorders. Many health problems require lifestyle changes to restore health. For instance, people with diabetes must regularly check blood sugar levels and count carbohydrates. People with heart disease must choose a healthier diet and an exercise program. Obviously, these folks did not choose to have these health challenges. However, but they most certainly do choose how to handle them. The same is true for people with addictions such as alcoholism.
The brain is the most dynamic and complex organ in our bodies. The brain's proper functioning ensures our very survival. When our brains functions well, we are constantly adapting to our environment (our surroundings). Ironically, it is the brain's ability to be so adaptive that contributes to the formation of addiction. Alcoholism causes changes to the brain in at least four fundamental ways:
1. Alcoholism causes changes to the brain's natural balance (homeostasis).
2. Alcoholism alters brain chemistry.
3. Alcoholism changes the brain's communication patterns.
4. Alcoholism causes changes to brain structures and their functioning.
The addictions topic center explains these ways that addiction affects the brain in much greater detail.
Many of the symptoms we commonly associate with addiction are due to these changes in the brain:
1. Changes to the brain's cerebral cortex are associated with impaired decision-making, impulsivity, and compulsivity. These changes make it more likely that you will take a drink, or have difficulty resisting the urge to drink.
2. The brain's reward system is responsible for drug-seeking, and cravings. From an evolutionary point of view, the brain's reward system ensures the survival of our species. We are more likely to repeat behaviors that are pleasurable (such as eating and sex). Unfortunately, addictions hijack this healthy function. People become addicted because they experience alcohol effects as pleasurable. This function of the brain makes relapse more likely even though people have good intentions to stop drinking.
3. The brain's amygdala is associated with memory and emotion. Certain "cues" are stored as positive or negative memories. For example, let's suppose someone always comes home and fixes a drink. Coming home, and the time (finishing work) now serve as cues to drink because these cues are stored as a positive memory associated with alcohol. When someone tries to stop drinking, these cues serve as powerful motivators to drink despite someone's best intentions to refrain from use. Likewise, people often describe alcohol addiction as a habit, and one that is difficult to break. When people attempt to discontinue an addiction like alcoholism, they can experience withdrawal. The memory of withdrawal is such an unpleasant experience that it serves as a powerful motivator (or cue) to resume the addictive behavior to avoid the unpleasant experience. Eventually, the relief from withdrawal (by resuming use) becomes pleasurable in and of itself. These relapse triggers are due to the amygdala's effect on memory and emotions.
4. Alcohol's effect on the brain's hypothalamus creates problems with stress regulation. People often drink to relieve stress. Since withdrawal from alcohol is itself stressful, this creates a vicious cycle. Stopping alcohol use creates stress, but the use of alcohol diminished the brain's ability to regulate stress.
Alcohol and Sleep
Many people suffering from insomnia will take a drink before bedtime to help them fall asleep. After an initial stimulating effect, alcohol's sedating effects can reduce the time required to fall asleep.
But alcohol's effects do not end there. Research shows that alcohol consumed within an hour of bedtime will disrupt sleep in the second half of the sleep period, causing the person to sleep fitfully—awakening from dreams and not being able to get back to sleep easily.
Over time, the drink before bedtime works even less effectively. With continued consumption, studies found alcohol's sleep-inducing effects decrease, while its sleep disturbance effects increase.
This is particularly true for elderly adults because drinking produces higher levels of alcohol in their blood and brain compared to younger drinkers. Consequently, older adults who have a drink before bedtime can experience an increased risk for falls and injuries if they get up and walk during the night.
'Happy Hour' Drinks
Studies have found that alcohol consumed even six hours before bedtime can increase wakefulness during the second half of sleep, even though the alcohol consumed has already been eliminated from the body.
Researchers believe the alcohol causes a long-lasting change in how the body regulates sleep.
Chronic alcohol use appears to be linked to an increased risk for sleep apnea, especially among drinkers who snore.
Obstructive sleep apnea is a disorder in which the upper air passage narrows or closes during sleep, causing interrupted breathing. When this happens, the person will awaken, resume breathing, and then return to sleep. Incidents of apnea followed by awakening can occur hundreds of times during the night, significantly reducing sleep time.
Furthermore, drinking moderate to high amounts of alcohol prior to sleep can narrow the air passage, causing episodes of apnea in persons who normally do not exhibit sleep apnea symptoms.
Why is this effect of alcohol on apnea important? Sleep apnea sufferers who drink two or more drinks a day are five times more likely to be involved in a fatigue-related traffic crash than those who do not drink.
Research has linked the combination of sleep apnea, snoring, and alcohol consumption with an increased risk of heart attack, arrhythmia, stroke, and sudden death.
When people get older, they naturally experience a decrease in slow-wave sleep and an increase in nighttime wakefulness. Research has found that people over 65 often awake three or more times during the night.
This leads to sleep that is less restful and restorative and can encourage the use of alcohol to try to increase sleep. The results, however, is an increase in alcohol-related sleep disturbances for older adults.
Why Do People Drink Excessively?
In light of all the damage alcohol can cause, you may wonder why people still have troubles with drinking excessively. It’s true that we all choose the first drink, or the first binge, or even engaging in subsequent binges. Alcohol is a depressant, though. It relaxes your central nervous system, resulting in a calm feeling that may seem desirable at first.
It’s these calm, relaxed results that make you seek alcohol at first. But after a while, binge or excessive drinking becomes a habit. Once you form a habit, your brain begins to change the way it responds to the effects of alcohol. This can cause cravings or urges to drink even after you realize that maybe you should cut back.
To make matters worse, you might become tolerant to the effects of alcohol, and have to drink larger amounts or drink more frequently to get the same results. When you try to cut back or quit, you might experience withdrawal symptoms. It’s withdrawal that gets you: headaches, tremors, nausea, and even feelings of anxiety or depression when not drinking may keep you going back to it long after you decide to stop.
Alcohol as Medicine and Poison Scroll to read more
Alcohol as Medicine and Poison
The intent of Prohibition was to deter the consumption of alcohol, which was seen as unhealthful and a public nuisance. Not only would that prove nearly impossible to achieve, but the government’s zeal to block the consumption of industrial alcohol would lead to the unintentional but disastrous poisoning, paralysis and deaths of thousands of drinkers at the hands of bootleggers. And in 1930, a pair of men in Boston would concoct an illegal and toxic alcoholic beverage, “Ginger Jake,” that was responsible for crippling up to 100,000 people across America.
The Volstead Act contained two significant exceptions to its ban on the sale of alcohol – liquors dispensed by doctors as prescription medicine (typically whiskey and other hard liquor) and liquors produced and used for religious sacraments (usually wine) by priests, rabbis and ministers.
Section 7 of the Volstead Act permitted alcoholic beverages as a treatment by a doctor who “in good faith believes that the use of such liquor as a medicine by such person is necessary and will afford relief to him from some known ailment.” The law also left itself open to misuse by letting doctors prescribe alcohol even if they could not physically examine the patient, as long as their off-site diagnosis was based “upon the best information attainable.”
That Volstead made the exception for doctors to prescribe and pharmacists to dispense “medicinal liquor” as therapy for the sick went against even the prevailing view of the medical profession at the time. In 1917, the American Medical Association issued a declaration stating that alcohol had no “scientific value” as a tonic or stimulant for healing and “should be further discouraged.” Still, the dubious and outdated view of alcohol as a remedy — a tradition going back thousands of years — was codified in the law and would prove lucrative for both doctors and druggists and an excuse for “patients” to score booze from 1920 to the end of Prohibition in 1933.
Volstead specified that doctors had to obtain a permit from the U.S. Treasury Department to prescribe alcohol, which was manufactured for pharmacies by government-approved distilleries. The department issued pads of numbered and watermarked forms to doctors who could then sign prescriptions allowing patients up to one pint of liquor (usually whiskey) every 10 days. The medicine was costly – the patient had to pay about $3 ($37.50 in 2016 dollars) to the doctor for the diagnosis and another $3 to the pharmacist. Volstead specifically prohibited refills (although not separate prescriptions) and made druggists write in a date that “canceled” the prescription immediately after filling it.
Doctors typically prescribed one ounce of whiskey to adults (less for children, who also were treated with liquor) every few hours for maladies with formal names such as “la grippe” (the flu), “coryza” (the common cold) and “pharyngitis” (sore throat) but also for serious ailments such as high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, tuberculosis and cancer, with the rationale that liquor promoted digestion and physical vigor.
The legal exemption led to a windfall for doctors and pharmacists. Even the AMA, just two years after Prohibition started, rescinded its objection to the medicinal value of liquor, endorsing it as a treatment for a laundry list of nearly 30 maladies. For the Walgreens drug company of Chicago, the popularity of medicinal alcohol sent profits through the roof – the chain grew from 20 drugstores in 1920 to 525 stores across the country in 1929. But Walgreens to this day insists its rapid growth was due to a combination of effective management, its tasty brand of ice cream made in Chicago served in its stores’ soda fountains, and specifically the invention of the malted milkshake by its employee, Ivar “Pop” Coulson, in 1922.
For years before Prohibition, industrial-grade (and undrinkable) alcohol was used in factories as a solvent and cleaning fluid, and to manufacture detergent, flavoring extracts and perfumes. Alcohol had been subject to excise taxes as a beverage in the United States until 1906, when a process borrowed from Europe added “denaturants,” or substances that made grain-based (ethyl) alcohol taste or smell bad, to deter its use in drinks. The “denatured” alcohol could then be used, tax free, in manufacturing.
By the start of Prohibition in 1920, tens of millions of gallons of denatured ethyl alcohol were made for industrial use and considered legally exempt by the U.S. government because it contained toxic additives rendering it dangerous to drink. The alcohol was denatured by mixing it with wood (methyl) alcohol, a harmful liquid that could cause blindness or death if ingested. But bootleggers started using denatured industrial alcohol disguised as whiskey – what would be called “rotgut” for its effect on the drinker’s internal organs – even in the months before Prohibition took effect. The magazine Literary Digest, in its January 10, 1920 issue, reported that scores of people had recently died, including 57 in Hartford, Connecticut, and hundreds of others blinded after drinking “alleged whiskey” containing wood alcohol. Authorities arrested some bootleggers after tracing the tainted alcohol to New York City.
By about 1922, supplies of authentic whiskey distilled prior to Prohibition, and targeted for theft by bootleggers, were gone. With industrial alcohol being made on a large scale, bootleggers starting hijacking it, figuring they could redistill and sell it as drinkable alcohol. By 1923, the Treasury Department’s Prohibition Bureau was already focused on preventing organized crime from reconditioning industrial alcohol for sale to drinkers. The government instructed makers of the industrial-use liquid to denature it by adding four percent wood alcohol, poisonous to humans in very small amounts.
But bootleggers nonetheless succeeded in stealing large quantities to recondition it into cheap booze for unsuspecting drinkers, often those in the lower classes who could not afford high-quality liquor. The government reported that by the mid-1920s, about 90 million gallons of alcohol for industrial use had been distilled nationally with about 6 million reserved for medical and research purposes and the rest meant for hundreds of commercial businesses. However, the government estimated that bootleggers had grabbed about 10 million gallons. Bootleggers, knowing full well it contained wood alcohol, attempted to remove the toxins by boiling the grain and wood alcohol mixture in illegal stills. The wood alcohol boiled and started to evaporate into a condenser at 151 degrees Fahrenheit, while it took 173 degrees to boil the grain liquid. Some of the poisonous wood liquid evaporated but as the public would later learn, it was not chemically possible to take out all the wood alcohol. Even a small amount of wood alcohol remaining, if ingested, attacked the nervous system, for instance, the optic nerve, causing blindness.
In the mid-1920s, bootleggers sold large amounts of the poisonous alcohol mixed with other liquids, represented it as whiskey and other beverages, and people started dying. In New York in 1926, about 750 perished after imbibing the wood alcohol-laced bootlegged liquor. That New Year’s Eve, as people drank in 1927, many jammed Bellevue Hospital on New Year’s Day and 41 died. Hundreds more New Yorkers died later that year. In Philadelphia, 307 died that January, and 163 in Chicago. About 15,000 people were reported poisoned in just one county in Kansas. Up to 50,000 people may have died from the repurposed industrial alcohol nationwide and thousands of others were stricken by crippling paralysis. In 1927 in New York alone, of the 480,000 gallons of liquor seized by Treasury’s Prohibition agents, 98 percent contained poisonous additives, and liquor seized from 55 of the city’s speakeasies proved to contain traces of wood alcohol.
Critics, including anti-Prohibition “wets,” blamed the deaths and injuries on reckless government policies, such as the absence of warning labels on containers of industrial alcohol. Dr. Nicolas Murray Butler of Columbia University accused the U.S. government, which approved the wood alcohol denaturant, of “legalized murder.” The government acted by passing a new law lowering the maximum wood alcohol content in industrial alcohol to two percent. In the weeks after the disaster in 1927, J.M. Doran, head chemist for the Prohibition Bureau, worked on perfecting a new, less harmful but still foul-smelling and tasting denaturant, such as kerosene. The feds later approved the addition of ingredients such as iodine, ether, nicotine and formaldehyde to try to make industrial alcohol too horrible to drink.
By 1930, when the earnings of America’s bootleggers hit an estimated $3 billion, criminal distributors had for some time shifted from industrial alcohol to distilling their own raw alcohol with sugar, yeast and other ingredients, producing yields considered good enough and safe to drink. But also that year, another national wave of alcohol poisoning loomed, this time without government involvement.
Starting in 1928, a pair of Boston bootleggers, brothers-in-law Harry Gross and Max Reisman, started manufacturing an illegal alcoholic beverage based on an extract of Jamaican ginger, an old patented medicinal remedy of a powder mixed with alcohol. But to hide the alcohol from Prohibition agents, the men added as adulterant the chemical tri-ortho-cresyl phosphate, known as Lindol. The odorless, tasteless chemical was a plasticizer used to make celluloid film and explosives. Gross and Reisman said they were assured by the manufacturer that Lindol was safe.
The men marketed the mixture as “Ginger Jake,” a fluid extract of ginger used as a medicine for colds, cramps and malaria. They circulated about 1,000 gallons of the stuff from 1929 to 1930. Thousands of bottles of Ginger Jake were sold as “liquid medicine” with a wink and a nod as a cheap alcoholic drink. It was shipped into Rhode Island and Georgia and eventually sold from coast to coast. But Lindol proved to be toxic to nerve cells, causing paralysis – mostly permanent – below the waist, including impotence in men. It quickly produced an epidemic of damage to the legs of drinkers. From 35,000 to 100,000 people were afflicted with a pronounced, slow limp called “jake leg” or “jake walk.” Many of the injured were poor, immigrants and African-Americans.
Gross and Reisman were prosecuted not under Volstead Act but the Agriculture Department’s food and drug laws for producing a fake product. Both were convicted of felony crimes and sentenced to two years in prison. Gross went to prison but Reisman’s sentence was suspended. For decades to come, those with “jake leg” could be seen limping and begging on the streets of large cities. But they received little sympathy as many believed what happened to them was their own fault.
Within months of the tragedy in mid-1930, music groups started writing songs about the sorry, lasting effects of Ginger Jake. In June 1930, the Allen Brothers, a Tennessee country band, recorded “Jake Walk Blues,” which started this way:
I can’t eat, I can’t talk,
Been drinkin’ mean jake, Lord, now I can’t walk,
Ain’t got nothin’ now to lose,
’Cause I’m a jake walkin’ papa, with the jake walk blues.
That same month, the Mississippi blues group Bo Carter and the Mississippi Sheiks recorded a protest song, “Jake Leg Blues.” The song ends with this stanza:
ELI5: how Denatured Alcohol may cause blindness is swallowed.
It contains (or rather, can contain) methanol which is poisonous to the central nervous system. Methanol poisoning may result in blindness, coma, and death. Denaturing alcohol does not chemically alter the ethanol molecule. Rather, the ethanol is mixed with other chemicals to form an undrinkable solution.
Also would like to add that methanol is metabolized into formic acid, which damages the eyes, causing the blindness associated with denatured alcohol.
During prohibition, they deliberately started adding methanol in order to poison anyone that drank it.
There are perfectly good additives that render ethanol completely unpalatable without being toxic (as they use in Australia), but no.
Prohibition shows just how dangerous our government is to its own citizens.
Methanol is not directly poisonous, but when your body tries to break it down some kind of dangerous acid forms.
Note that methanol itself is not really toxic. The body oxidises it to formaldyde and formic acid with are the real culprits. One of the antidotes to methanol poisoning is normal alcohol (ethanol) which competes with the enzymes, and slows the methanol oxidation to the point it is less harmful. As far as I can ascertain, the precise mechanism that formic acid causes blindness is not known.
Methanol, the simplest alcohol, is extremely poisonous and can cause harm if swallowed, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin. It’s often associated with incorrectly distilled liquor. Drinking as little as 30 milliliters—1 ounce or 2 tablespoons—can be fatal to children. Smaller doses can cause permanent blindness.
Inside the body, methanol is metabolized to formaldehyde, then to formic acid. This can lead to metabolic acidosis, a dangerous buildup of acid in the body that can cause organ damage. Formic acid can also accumulate in the optic nerve, causing severe damage that can lead to permanent blindness.
According to safety documents, symptoms of poisoning by ingestion can manifest as gastrointestinal irritation—with nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea—and central nervous system depression, causing headache, dizziness, drowsiness, nausea, and an intoxicated feeling. This can progress to rapid breathing, slowed heart rate, kidney dysfunction, loss of consciousness, coma, and death.
When inhaled, it can immediately cause dizziness, nausea, headache, and vomiting. This is followed by a latent period with no apparent symptoms as metabolic acidosis develops. Then systemic effects appear, including vision problems.
Absorbed through the skin, methanol can cause the same systemic effects and vision problems. Prolonged exposure to skin can cause defatting of the skin as well as irritation.
Can eye damage be cured?
Heavy alcohol consumption can cause irreversible vision loss in some people, while others may regain some vision but not completely, CEENTA Ophthalmologist Payal Patel, MD, said.
“The foods and drinks we consume can have lasting effects on our body,” Dr. Patel said. “Heavy alcohol use reduces our body’s ability to absorb necessary vitamins, and resulting high toxin levels can permanently affect our vision. Moderation is key for a healthy lifestyle.”
If you or a loved one suffers from alcoholism, please don’t hesitate to seek help from a professional. If you are concerned about any related vision loss, schedule an appointment with a CEENTA eye doctor today.
This blog is for informational purposes only. For specific medical questions, please consult your doctor. Would you like an appointment with Dr. Patel? Call 704-295-3000. You can also schedule an appointment online or through myCEENTAchart.