Today's post is the first in a series I'm going to write about extra ingredients found in illicit recreational drugs. One of the major issues with street drugs is their manufacture and distribution is often poorly regulated. This means they can accidentally become contaminated with all sorts of toxic substances during production. Additionally, a wide range of chemical compounds, some of them harmful, may be intentionally added to a drug in order to dilute it (like a bar watering down their drinks to make more money). These cutting agents often mimic the physical characteristics and/or effects of the drug so as to convince users what they're paying for is of higher quality than it actually is.
Moonshine (hooch, white lightning) generally refers to any strong alcoholic drink produced illegally via fermentation and distillation. In the US, the starting ingredient is often corn, although any sugar-rich plant material can be used. You ferment sugar water into ethanol water (via the action of yeasts and bacteria), then set up a still to concentrate the ethanol (drinking alcohol) as a liquor. The fermented solution is heated in a pot attached to a coiled condenser. Since ethanol has a lower boiling point than water, the vapour that is produced will initially contain a higher concentration of ethanol compared to the liquid being boiled. The boozy vapour cools back to a liquid as it passes through the condenser, and is collected in a container at the end.
|A pot still used to make moonshine - pot on the right, coiled condenser on the left|
If a still is constructed using parts not intended for use in a still, it can introduce harmful substances into the moonshine. For example, hooking up a poorly cleaned automotive radiator as a condenser can result in antifreeze (ethylene glycol) ending up in the booze. Lead, a toxic metal capable of causing neurological damage, can leach into moonshine if lead-containing solder and fittings are used to connect the piping of a still. Drinking contaminated moonshine is an important cause of lead poisoning among adults in many parts of the world including the United States. This form of poisoning has a long history. In the 19th century, rum was produced in Antigua using stills with lead condensation coils, resulting in cases of lead poisoning among British soldiers deployed in the Caribbean.
Along with ethanol, fermentation produces small amounts of a bunch of other alcohols. These are collectively known as fusel alcohols, and include methanol (wood alcohol) and forms of propanol and butanol. Methanol is particularly bad news, as it's converted in the body to formic acid, which can disrupt the pH balance of the body's fluids (metabolic acidosis) and cause you to go blind. The fusel alcohols usually aren't present in sufficient amounts to cause serious problems, and are removed during distillation provided it is done correctly (methanol has a lower boiling point than ethanol or water, so it's concentrated in the initial bit of liquid exiting the condenser - this is usually discarded).
Unfortunately, methanol and other alcohols may be intentionally added to a liquor to boost its strength. Up until the mid-20th century, incidents in which dozens of people were poisoned by a particular batch of methanol-laced homemade alcohol were fairly commonplace in the US. Illegal alcohol remains a major cause of methanol poisoning around the world, with methanol popping up in such drinks as chang'aa (Kenya) and țuică (Romania). It tends to be more of a problem in (1) developing countries, (2) countries where alcohol is taxed up the wazoo, and/or (3) countries where alcohol is illegal or its sale is heavily restricted. In other words, places where there is an impetus to make booze at home.
Hassanian-Moghaddam H et al. 2015. Methanol mass poisoning in Iran: Role of case finding in outbreak management. Journal of Public Health 37(2):354-359. [Full text]
Holstege CP, Ferguson JD, Wolf CE, Baer AB, Poklis A. 2004. Analysis of moonshine for contaminants. Journal of Toxicology: Clinical Toxicology 42(5):597-601.
Levy P, Hexdall A, Gordon P, Boeriu C, Heller M, Nelson L. 2003. Methanol contamination of Romanian home-distilled alcohol. Journal of Toxicology: Clinical Toxicology 41(1):23-28.