Methanol: What is it & is it Safe?

Methanol: What is it & is it Safe?

Methanol (also commonly known as methyl alcohol or wood alcohol) is the simplest alcohol in terms of chemical compounds. It is formed by four hydrogen molecules, one carbon molecule, and one oxygen molecule (CH3OH). This type of alcohol is colorless, flammable, and volatile. This compound is present in humans, animals, and plants. Humans usually ingest methyl alcohol when consuming fruits and vegetables, certain juices or beverages, and soft drinks.

Is Methanol Toxic?

This alcohol is extremely toxic when ingested. It acts as a depressant of the central nervous system and metabolizes in the liver to produce formate, a toxic acid that causes cellular hypoxia, metabolic acidosis, and many other complications. Methanol ingestion can cause permanent damage to the optic nerve, resulting in blindness, and can potentially be fatal. Ingestion and/or inhalation of toxic fumes may also cause:

  • neurological symptoms like headache, dizziness, amnesia, etc.
  • gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea, vomiting, bleeding, pancreatitis, etc.
  • kidney failure
  • tachycardia or bradycardia

In addition to ingestion, methyl alcohol can be absorbed by the skin. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the USFDA found hand sanitizer products that were being sold and labeled as containing ethanol (safe alcohol for hand sanitizer) but actually contained methanol. These products were recalled to avoid widespread methyl alcohol contamination and poisoning.

What is Methanol Used for?

It is mostly used in industrial settings for a variety of purposes:

  • Fuel for factories
  • Fuel for electricity generation
  • Fuel for internal combustion engines (ground transportation, ships, industrial boilers)
  • Fuel for camping and boating stoves
  • Base for commodity chemicals like acetic acid and formaldehyde
  • Gasoline additive in Europe and China
  • Denaturant for ethanol
  • Solvent
  • Antifreeze in pipelines and windshield washer fluid
  • Wastewater treatment
  • Destaining agent in biochemistry practices

It is also found in everyday products:

  • Acrylic plastic
  • Synthetic fabrics in clothing
  • Adhesives
  • Paint
  • Plywood
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Agrochemicals
  • Car parts
  • Furniture polishers and cleaners
  • Liquid laundry detergents
  • Air fresheners

Although methyl alcohol can be toxic in large amounts, it is extremely vital to everyday life and many of the products that are vital to modern life would not be available without it! It is also an eco-friendlier alternative to traditional fuel sources. With proper use, the hazards presented by this compound are easy to avoid and the full benefits of methanol can be reaped.

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