Why is Methanol Toxic, But Not Ethanol?
Ethanol (alcohol) is a poison that is widely consumed all around the world. However drinking methanol the same way leads to poisoning of a different, irreversible kind. We look at the chemistry and biochemistry involved in two very similar molecules, and how they affect the body in different ways.
Table of Contents
How Methanol Gets into Our Alcohol
There have been many cases around the world of people experiencing methanol poisoning after consuming illegally sold alcoholic beverages. Especially in developing countries where small bars cannot afford the price of taxed liquor, they turn to create their own.
One of the dangers of consuming moonshine – or ‘homemade alcohol’ is the risk that it might have been spiked with methanol, or that methanol has simply formed as a side product of improper fermentation.
Low concentrations of methanol occur naturally in most alcoholic beverages without causing any harm. However higher levels have been found when microbiological processes fail to meet aseptic conditions, therefore introducing wild yeasts into the fermentation process.
These microbes have an enzyme called pectin methyl esterase, which is able to convert pectin – a naturally occurring chemical found in fruits – to methanol.
Methanol vs. Ethanol Toxicity
Once consumed, the side effects that come with methanol ingestion can be mild to severe. Symptoms of methanol toxicity include a slight inebriation for 10 to 20 hours, followed by weakness, vomiting, pain, confusion, severe lowering of blood pH, ocular toxicity, and eventually coma and death1.
The differences in the way methanol and ethanol affect the body are actually… not very different at all. Methanol on its own is not very toxic, comparable in fact, to your everyday alcohol in that they can inhibit brain functions through central nervous system depressant properties.
Your body, however, is wired to break chemicals down so that they can be excreted through processes collectively known as metabolism. One of the first steps in metabolism tends to be oxidation.
Methanol is no exception, being oxidized by an enzyme in the liver called alcohol dehydrogenase – the same enzyme that works on ethanol. While ethanol is converted into acetaldehyde, methanol is converted in the same manner into formaldehyde.
It is worth noting that both acetaldehyde and formaldehyde on their own are dangerous chemicals and known carcinogens2.
The acute toxicity associated with methanol poisoning stems from the conversion of formaldehyde to formic acid by another enzyme, aldehyde dehydrogenase. This same enzyme is responsible for converting acetaldehyde (from the ethanol pathway) into the less toxic acetic acid, or vinegar.
In the methanol pathway, formic acid (also known as formate) is formed, which isn’t as well tolerated as acetic acid. Accumulation of this chemical in the blood deprives cells of oxygen by inhibiting the enzyme cytochrome c oxidase in their mitochondria, a key element of the respiratory electron transport chain.
Formic acid, together with formaldehyde, are responsible for nerve damage, blindness, and other unpleasant effects associated with methanol poisoning.
Antidotes For Methanol Poisoning
The prognosis for methanol poisoning (or rather, formic acid poisoning) is actually quite good if treated early on. The antidote comes in the form of a drug called fomepizole, which is a competitive inhibitor of alcohol dehydrogenase, preventing the formation of formaldehyde.
In the absence of this drug, ethanol can also be used as it binds to the same enzyme more strongly than methanol, thereby saturating the active sites and preventing the conversion of methanol to formaldehyde. In this way, methanol is excreted via the kidneys before it can be converted into its toxic metabolites.
Hemodialysis – the filtering of blood by a machine – can also accelerate the removal of blood methanol and formate, although this hemodialysis equipment is usually only available in large hospitals.
- McMartin, K. E., Ambre, J. J., & Tephly, T. R. (1980). Methanol poisoning in human subjects: role for formic acid accumulation in the metabolic acidosis. The American journal of medicine, 68(3), 414-418.
- Kerns, W. D., Pavkov, K. L., Donofrio, D. J., Gralla, E. J., & Swenberg, J. A. (1983). Carcinogenicity of formaldehyde in rats and mice after long-term inhalation exposure. Cancer Research, 43(9), 4382-4392.