Earlier this evening I had a meme pop up on my feed that told about how 10,000 or so people died during prohibition era due to methanol poisoning. I don't know about the veracity of that number, but it is true that they did poison the supply of alcohol to keep people from drinking it. You see, ethanol was legal during prohibition if used for purposes other than imbibing. The way the government would ensure that this ethanol couldn't be consumed would be to poison it with a small amount of methanol, also known as wood alcohol (ethanol is grain alcohol, the kind we drink in wine, beer and liquor). Very horrifying indeed.
I got to thinking about how I used to use ethanol in the lab to help keep surfaces disinfected. This is especially important in the incubators and laminar flow hoods that we used to do mammalian cell cultures with. Even the tiniest bit of biological contamination can ruin an experiment because the growth media are rich in nutrients that microbes go nuts for. 70% Ethanol was just the thing we needed to clean and disinfect the work areas and our hands and arms so as to avoid this contamination, and we used a lot of it.
Now one of the problems with the ethanol that we used in the lab is that it still contains methanol by law, just like the non-drinking kind of alcohol that was legal during prohibition. As such, it's corrosive to metals. Much of the equipment we used in the lab was made of stainless steel and aluminum, and methanol is corrosive to these metals. So in effect, the government's requirement that all ethanol not used for drinking contain methanol was slowly destroying all our extremely expensive equipment, which was almost entirely funded by the government ironically.
Now why does the government still do this now that alcohol is no longer a prohibited substance and it has deleterious effects on the usefulness of it as an industrial chemical and laboratory reagent? The answer is that it is simply about taxation. You see, the way they sell the idea of taxing alcohol is that it's a sin tax. In other words, because alcohol consumption is evil, it's okay to tax people who do it, right? I don't believe this personally, but enough people do that it's allowed to go on. Hell, they were able to pass an amendment to the constitution at one point because people feel so strongly about its evil nature. Now if you can't tax the alcohol used for industrial purposes for the same reasons, and you can't get the people behind it because using alcohol for industry and research isn't evil, how is a government to ensure that it doesn't still get into the hands of those evil drinkers without being taxed? Well kids, they poison it so that anyone who tries will either be severely and permanently injured, or they will die if they consume enough of it. Some people still do.
All of this also got me thinking about a story that happened close to me years ago. When I worked for the SUNY Research Foundation at the University of Buffalo, we had a VA hospital close by. One night, an alcoholic veteran who was in rehab snuck out of the hospital and broke into one of the neighboring labs to ours. He drank a whole bunch of the laboratory grade ethanol and my friends found him laying there passed out when they came in to work that morning.
I'm not sure what exactly happened to the guy after that, but he must have at least had a horrible and painful time. If he's still alive, he's probably blind now. So, this was done to this man who is suffering from a debilitating disease(s) (alcoholism and likely PTSD) in the name of taxation. Doesn't it make you all feel just a little bit warm and cuddly inside that people like this man are being maimed and killed every year so that we can be taxed when we peacefully consume alcoholic beverages? Yeah, me neither.