Moonshine is synonymous with illegal and highly potent hooch that’s been distilled in the dead of night. As well as being illegal, it gets a bad rep for being dangerous.
But what makes it dangerous?
The term moonshine often refers to a homemade corn whiskey or other home-distilled spirits. If not done correctly, moonshine can contain large amounts of methanol which may lead to blindness and death. It’s also hard to know the concentration of alcohol you’re drinking which can lead to alcohol poisoning and nasty hangovers.
You’ve probably heard all the horror stories about this, so let’s explore it in more detail
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Is Moonshine Dangerous? The Impact
Moonshine is dangerous because it may contain dangerous amounts of methanol. Methanol is harmless in low amounts and is present in everyday fruits and vegetables. In alcohol, it is a byproduct of fermentation and can be concentrated through the distillation process.
Read more on how to avoid methanol when distilling.
According to an article published in The New York Times by the U.S National Committee for the Prevention of Blindness, methanol caused 130 deaths and 22 cases of blindness during the American Prohibition era.
Some moonshiners don’t follow government regulations about how much alcohol can be in their product, so they’re left to their own devices when it comes to making moonshine safe for consumption.
Some moonshiners who run moonshining businesses unscrupulously add methanol to their product to increase its potency, and buyers (unknowingly) consume the drink and suffer the effects.
Why is Moonshine Dangerous?
The main danger of moonshine stems from the fact that it’s often produced in makeshift stills that don’t conform to federal or local safety regulations. The other reasons why moonshine is considered dangerous is because of the following reasons.
One of the biggest dangers of moonshine is methanol poisoning. Methanol is commonly found in pesticides, paint thinners, fuel, and other industrial chemicals. It can also be produced naturally during fermentation when yeast breaks down sugar into ethanol and carbon dioxide.
When ingested, methanol is metabolized into formaldehyde by your body. This process creates formic acid which can cause blindness, coma, or death if left untreated for too long. Methanol poisoning can occur after drinking moonshine if there’s a large amount of methanol present in your drink or if you’re consuming it frequently over a long period.
The Alcohol Concentration
Moonshine is known to be dangerous because the alcohol concentration is higher than that of commercial ethanol. The corn-based liquor is made in an open distillation process and can reach an alcohol concentration of up to 180 proof (95% ABV). The safest amount of proof moonshine can contain is between 100-150 (50% -75% ABV).
Consumers typically expect their spirits to be bottled at around 40% ABV or 80 proof. If the alcohol concentration exceeds this then they can easily drink far more alcohol than expected, exacerbating the harmful effects of alcohol stated below.
Harmful Effects of Ethanol
Ethanol is the main ingredient in alcoholic drinks, such as beer, wine, and spirits. These drinks can be harmful in large amounts. Common side effects include:
- Slurred speech
Process of Making Moonshine
The process of making moonshine usually involves some kind of chemical reaction (like fermentation) that produces toxic fumes. These fumes are highly flammable so when moonshine is processed in an area without adequate ventilation, it can cause an explosion.
Also, because moonshine is often homemade, there’s no control over what chemicals are used or how well the process is controlled. This makes it dangerous for anyone who drinks it.
It’s legal to own a still of any under federal law, but it’s illegal to produce moonshine at home and to transport, sell, or transfer moonshine unless the container has a 26 U.S.C. 5301 enclosure. Also, any vehicle and container carrying and transporting the (illegally manufactured) drink will be forfeited to the United States. According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, penalties include:
- 5 years imprisonment
- Both a fine and imprisonment.
Symptoms of Methanol Poisoning
The symptoms of methanol poisoning may vary depending on the duration of your exposure to the substance, but they typically include:
- Reduced level of consciousness
- Blurred vision
- Red, irritated eyes
- Low blood pressure
- Sensitivity to light
- Heart failure
- Uncoordinated movement
Even ingesting the relatively small amount of 10ml of pure methanol may cause serious health problems.
The lethal human dose of pure methanol was estimated at 15.8–474 g/person in recent research. They determined the median lethal amount is 56.2 g/person as the median
How To Treat Methanol Poisoning
In most cases, treatment for methanol poisoning involves supportive care at a hospital or emergency room. The following treatments may be used:
- Fomepizole: A drug used to treat methanol toxicity by preventing formic acid from being produced in the body.
- Ethanol: A type of alcohol found in beer, wine, and liquor. It’s used as an antidote for methanol because it competes with formic acid for access to liver enzymes.
Read more on how to treat methanol poisoning here
Will Drinking Moonshine Make You Go Blind
An oral intake of 3–12 g/person of pure methanol can cause blindness as it attacks the optic nerve.
Methanol is rapidly converted in the body to formic acid via formaldehyde via in an enzyme reaction. Formic acid is a highly toxic and will damage the protein components in cells such as the mitochondria which are responsible for energy production. When this occurs in the cells of the eye, such as the photoreceptors and optic neve, then vision impairment and blindness can ensue.
Is Store Bought Moonshine Safe to Drink
Store-bought moonshine is safe to drink in moderation.
Many boutique distilleries have started producing ‘moonshine’ as a homage to the prohibition era shine that’s captivated folklore. This is essentially a white corn-based whiskey and is made in the same way as any commercial whiskey would be. So, store-bought drinks are made by reputable companies, with more stringent standards than homemade moonshine.
The alcohol content of moonshine is not the only hazard of drinking it. Methanol can be found in improperly made moonshine. Methanol poisoning produces many of the same symptoms as ethanol poisoning, but the symptoms can be more severe such as blindness, coma, and death.
When buying moonshine, ensure it’s from a reputable business that adheres to federal laws so you don’t have to suffer the effects of methanol poisoning.
- Home Brew Academy: Moonshine Proof: What it’s all about and three ways to test and Determine Proof
- National Library of Medicine: Fomepizole for the treatment of methanol poisoning
- The New York Times: Wood Alcohols Victims
- United States Environmental Protection Agency: Facts About Formaldehyde
- Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau: Penalties for Illegal Distilling
- Science Direct: Methanol Poisoning-an Overview
- Garden and Gun: Will Drinking Moonshine Make You Go Blind?