Library Collections: Document: Full Text

Wood Alcohol Poisoning

Creator: n/a
Date: February 1920
Publication: The News Letter
Publisher: National Committee for the Prevention of Blindness, New York
Source: Mount Holyoke College Library
Figures From This Artifact: Figure 1

Next Page   All Pages 

Page 1:


To the National Committee for the Prevention of Blindness the problems connected with wood alcohol are by no means new. For many years it has been carrying on a consistent campaign to educate the lay mind to an appreciation of the dangers arising from drinking the poison or inhaling its fumes.


Foreseeing the possibility of increased use of wood alcohol upon the withdrawal of grain alcohol from the market, the Committee issued a special warning in the spring of 1919, and in September of that year instituted, through the co-operation of the press, an intensive educational campaign reaching not only every city and town in the United States, but rural districts as well. A need of continued work is evidenced by reports of wood alcohol poisoning daily appearing in the newspapers. As a basis for future action, the Committee is making a strenuous effort to get at the facts in the case; to this end a request for authoritative information was sent to the following: the health officer of each state, the health officer of one hundred of the largest cities, state commissions for the blind, associations for the blind, hospitals, prosecuting attorneys. The questionnaire asked for the following data:


Number of deaths and cases of total or partial blindness occurring since August 1, 1919, from
Wood alcohol straight,
Wood alcohol "whiskey,"
Denatured alcohol,
Form of wood alcohol poison unknown.


To date answers have been received from one-third of the inquiries. These report the following:


No. of deaths from wood alcohol poisoning 145
Wood alcohol straight 10
Wood alcohol "whiskey" 61
Denatured alcohol 4
Form of wood alcohol poison unknown 68
Florida toilet water 1
Extracts 1


In practically all cases no attempt was made to answer the questions referring to total or partial blindness, the reason for the omission being that information regarding such cases was not available. In reviewing these data it must be borne in mind that:


1. Wood alcohol poisoning is reportable in very few states, hence information must be gained from death certificates.


2. In many states wood alcohol poisoning is not differentiated on death certificates from other forms of poisoning, hence their statistics reporting no cases of death from this cause are probably incorrect.


3. The cause of death is very often camouflaged on the death certificate.


Taking these points into consideration, the following is evident:


1. The number of 145 deaths from wood alcohol poisoning, even in proportion to the small number of states reporting, underestimates the true number occurring.


2 Newspaper accounts are somewhat exaggerated, but the situation is very serious.


3. It is impossible to obtain conclusive data concerning the number of cases of total or partial blindness resulting from this cause.


An aspect of the situation that must be given careful consideration is the cumulative properties of wood alcohol; the formic acid remains in the system for some time. If one is not killed or blinded by imbibing small quantities of the poison, he may begin to feel an immunity, not realizing the cumulative action upon the optic nerve. Many cases of impaired vision might be traced to this cause.


Very definite steps have been taken to assist in preventing further tragedies from this source. The first of these is psychological in nature. The company controlling 80 per cent of the output of wood alcohol in the United States has changed the name of its product to methanol, thus eliminating from the lay mind any connection with an alcohol beverage.


The next step is of great industrial importance. December 29, 1919, the United States Department of Internal Revenue changed the formula by which ethyl or grain alcohol is denatured. The original formula was as follows:


To every too parts by volume of ethyl alcohol there shall be added to parts by volume of approved wood alcohol and one-half of 1 part by volume of approved benzine.


The present formula reads:


To every too parts by volume of ethyl alcohol there shall be added 2 parts by volume of approved wood alcohol and one-half of one part by volume of approved pyridin bases.


By the use of this formula, if one is not deterred by the nauseating pyridin bases from taking the product as a beverage, the danger of poisoning will be exceedingly small as compared with the denatured alcohol produced by the earlier formula.


Steps have been taken by boards of health to make wood alcohol poisoning reportable; thus New York City has added an amendment to its sanitary code:


Article 7, Section 106. WOOD ALCOHOL POISONING TO BE REPORTED. -- It shall be the duty of the manager or managers, superintendent, or person in charge of every hospital, institution, or dispensary in the city of New York to report immediately to the Department of Health the name, age, and address of every occupant or inmate thereof, or person treated therein, affected with wood alcohol or wood naphtha poisoning; and it shall also be the duty of every physician in said city to make immediately a similar report to the Department of Health relative to any person found by such physician to be affected with wood alcohol or wood naphtha poisoning.

Next Page

Pages:  1  2    All Pages