Toxic cocktail: warning to tourists in southeast Asia
Drinking complimentary cocktails at a popular tourist bar in Indonesia resulted in a young woman requiring hospital
treatment for methanol poisoning, sparking a warning from doctors for tourists to be wary of potentially tainted drinks
in southeast Asia.
Methanol is used as a fuel, a solvent, windscreen de-icer and antifreeze. If consumed, it can cause blindness, coma and
Today, methanol toxicity is seen infrequently in the developed world; however, it is still commonly seen in developing
countries as a result of home-brewed alcohol.
A report published in the latest issue of Emergency Medicine Australasia, the journal of the Australasian College for
Emergency Medicine, describes a young tourist who developed sudden onset visual failure and rapid breathing two days
after ingestion of a complimentary local drink called Arrack when travelling in Indonesia.
The 19-year-old backpacker consumed 8-10 complimentary cocktails containing a mixture of Arrack and fruit juice. She
arrived in New Zealand 35 hours later suffering from shortness of breath.
She sought help later when her vision began to fail. Although the woman survived, she has been left with permanent
In the case report, emergency physician Dr Paul Gee and colleague Dr Elizabeth Martin, from the Emergency Department at
Christchurch Hospital, express concern about the number of methanol poisoning cases among tourists to Indonesia in
“An almost identical case was reported in an Australian tourist to Indonesia in 1992. An incident where 25 died from
methanol poisoning in Indonesia occurred in 2009, and in recent months, an Australian nurse was poisoned by tainted
arrack and another tourist died in similar circumstances,” the authors said.
“In the case reported now, it is likely that the woman was given a drink contaminated with methanol from an illegal
distillation of ethanol.
“Arrack is a coconut flower, rice and sugarcane-based spirit common in Indonesia, which is produced commercially as well
as illegally.” (Arrack is local to Indonesia and should not be confused with the Middle Eastern anise-flavoured liquor
Dr Gee and Dr Martin say this case highlights the risk of consuming alcohol of unverified origin in southeast Asia.
Early symptoms can be non-specific, and late presentation from methanol toxicity is not uncommon.