It was set to be the holiday of a lifetime. A girls trip to the sun and sandy beaches surrounding Bali.
But instead, Brianna Scott and Katie Linane, both 21 from Ballarat in Victoria had part of their dream trip destroyed, simply because of a dodgy watermelon cocktail they’d purchased on a night out.
After arriving for a 10-day holiday at the end of October in Seminyak, the pair went out on a Friday evening together to some of the local bars.
Having their last drink at 11pm while partying, the pair returned back to their hotel room for the night. Within hours, horror struck.
“At first we thought it was just a horrible hangover,” Ms Scott told news.com.au.
“We woke up and had vertigo and Katie’s vision was blurry. I honestly couldn’t see much … I was seeing stars. I thought it must be a bit of heat stroke.”
But what the young tourists were experiencing was far from a hangover. They’d consumed a toxic cocktail laced with methanol hidden in their drink.
Without taste or smell, the young travellers had no idea what they’d been served at the bar.
Methanol, while closely related to ethanol (which is found in wine, beer and quality spirits) is far more toxic and can be found in drinks made from home-distilled spirits.
Commercially made spirits are safe to consume because manufacturers use technologies specifically designed to ensure methanol is separated from the ethanol that goes into the bottles we purchase.
Home brew systems, however, makes separation more difficult meaning methanol can be mixed in with the ethanol.
According to Professor Paul Haber, the head of Drug and Alcohol Services at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney, methanol is converted in the body into formic acid. It’s the build-up of this in the blood that causes the various symptoms – including death.
“Around the world, people fall victim and die to methanol poisoning,” Prof Haber told news.com.au. “It reacts quickly with tissues and it can be fatal. Eyes are particularly sensitive to it … and it can turn people blind.”
Ms Scott, a receptionist, said after enduring a number of unusual symptoms, they decided to go back to bed to sleep off what they thought was either a brief illness, heat stroke or perhaps “Bali Belly”.
But after seven hours, their condition worsened.
“We were completely dysfunctional,” she explained.
“We couldn’t use the phone without shutting one eye and taking the phone an arm length away from our faces.”
After deciding to order some McDonald’s while her friend continued to sleep, Ms Scott was still plagued with blurred vision and an excruciatingly sore stomach.
“Katie woke up and wouldn’t touch her food,” she said. “Then her eyesight had worsened, and she immediately went into hysterics because she has 20/20 vision.”
The pair sought help at a hospital close to where they were staying, but claim the medical attention wasn’t sufficient. So, they turned to a Facebook page called Just Don’t Drink Spirits In Bali. Run by Australian man Colin Ahearn, the page provides advice to travellers in Indonesia to help prevent methanol poisonings.
Mr Ahearn advised the girls to drink real, duty-free Vodka, which can sometimes reverse the symptoms of methanol poisoning. Mr Ahearn helped to source legitimate alcohol in Seminyak, and sent the bottle to the girls to consume.
“We drank half a bottle of Grey Goose,” Ms Scott explained, noting they were both out of action for three or four days in total simply because of two cocktails.
But while the measure worked for the young Australians, it is not foolproof, with Prof Haber urging anyone who comes in to contact with the poison to seek immediate medical attention.
“Prevention is the first way of avoiding the poisoning, with early recognition (of methanol) the second thing,” he explained.
“If you are feeling sick after a drink, stop drinking and access legitimate medical care.
“If for some reason you cannot access medical care, drinking alcohol from a legitimate source may be better than having no treatment of any sort.”
The earliest signs of methanol poisoning can be similar to hangover symptoms, ranging from nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain.
But after 12 to 24 hours, the more significant symptoms develop, including dizziness, vertigo and blurred vision.
Prof Haber said the reason alcohol, such as the Grey Goose vodka Ms Scott and Ms Linane consumed worked, is because of the ethanol content. But it’s a risk that should only be considered as a last resort.
“Ethanol, which is in the alcohol we drink, can work because it inhibits the production of formaldehyde which is what kills you,” he explained.
“Flooding the system with alcohol reduces the conversion of methanol in to formaldehyde. In a hospital we have more than one type of treatment to block this toxic process by using ethanol, but the use of alcohol would be a first aid measure if the person cannot access anything else.
“But this can be a life-threatening situation, so getting to a health practitioner is vital.”