Saturday, May 18, 2013

Indonesia: British Backpacker, 23, Dies from Methanol Poisoning in Sumatra, A Frequent Occurrence

According to, British backpackers Cheznye Emmons, 23, and her boyfriend, Joe Cook, 21, bought a bottle of what they thought was gin at a local shop in Sumatra before going to a full moon party in the jungle. 

What the young couple did not know is that what they had actually purchased was methanol, a toxic alcohol used industrially as a solvent or pesticide, largely because the tax on  alcoholic beverages can easily approach 200%. As a result, many unscrupulous shopkeepers lace alcoholic beverages with methanol to increase their profits.

Methanol is extremely poisonous; as little as 30ml can be deadly to an adult. Methanol is known to cause kidney failure, blindness and seizures. The toxicity of the substance is often rendered more dangerous as a result of poor distillation techniques.

Subsequently, the couple both fell ill, although Ms. Emmons was affected by the substance to a much greater degree than Mr. Cook. Emmons actually lost her sight, which is a common symptom of methanol poisoning. As a result, the couple trekked several hours to an eye clinic to no avail. 

Eventually, the young woman was moved to a hospital in Medan, where she was induced into a coma.  

Her parents, Pamela and Brenton Emmons, flew out to be by her side but on April 25, but eventually they were forced by circumstances to turn off her life support system. Sadly, Ms. Emmons passed away late last month.

COMMENT: The couple began their trip in Asia in February, visiting Thailand and eventually Indonesia. 

Unfortunately, the use of methanol is common throughout Indonesia, which is why I often urge foreign travelers to purchase alcoholic beverages through duty-free shops at airports en-route to their destination. 

Backpackers, in particular, are vulnerable to methanol poisoning because they are not inclined to transport alcoholic beverages for any length of time due to the weight, resulting in their being forced to purchase alcohol locally. Yet, in Indonesia, that risk can be formidable. 

In January 2013, 19-year-old Liam Davies died after drinking a beverage containing methanol on the island of Lombok. The Perth teenager had been celebrating on New Year’s Day when he fell ill. 

Last year, 28-year-old Swede Johan Lundin was poisoned by a mojito laced with methanol at a bar on Gili Trawangan island near Bali, and an 18-year-old Australian was blinded. 

In 2011, Newcastle nurse Jamie Johnston suffered brain damage and renal failure after drinking a methanol-laced cocktail in Indonesia. 

At least four foreigners were among the 25 people who died from methanol poisoning during a two-week period in Bali and Lombok in 2009.

It is important for all travelers to realize that everyone reacts differently to methanol. Some travelers become mildly ill and the symptoms pass. Yet, for others it can be deadly with irreversible results, which is why I strongly urge backpackers to put up with the additional weight or consider the use of a small flask that can be easily filled from alcohol purchased from an airport duty-free shop.