Methanol is employed in a wide variety of consumer products including solid fuels, antifreeze, windshield wiper fluid, paint remover, varnishes and as a solvent in photocopying machines. It is also imbibed as a cheap alternative to alcohol.
Although methanol is a highly poisonous, potentially lethal substance, this was not realised for many years.(1) Common laboratory species such as rats and mice are resistant to its effects,(2) and experiments during the early years of the 20th century gave the impression that methanol was only slightly toxic, and far less poisonous than alcohol.(3) In fact, methanol is ten times more toxic and a single bout of drinking methanol can lead to temporary or permanent blindness in people.(4) This does not happen in rats, mice, dogs, cats, rabbits or chickens.(3) Eventually, in the 1950s, and again during the 1970s, scientists found that the horrifying symptoms of methanol poisoning could be induced in monkeys.(2)
Animal experiments also proved misleading in devising treatment. During the 1920s, good results were achieved using bicarbonate in cases of human poisoning, but tragically the results were undermined by animal experiments. In 1955 an analysis of the subject stated that "it is indeed deplorable that about 30 years elapsed before the good effects of this treatment became commonly known, and unfortunately some still doubt its value. It seems that the authors of medical textbooks have paid more attention to the results of animal experiments than to clinical observations."(3) The treatment not only failed in animals but generally proved fatal, prompting some researchers to advise against it.
Another approach is to administer alcohol in order to reduce the toxicity of methanol. While this is effective in people. animal tests suggested that it would actually increase the danger of methanol
As a result, some discouraged its use in cases of human poisoning.(3) However, both bicarbonate and alcohol have withstood the clinical test and are still recommended for the treatment of methanol poisoning.(1)
1) M.J.Ellenhorn & D.G.Barceloux, Medical Toxicology: Diagnosis & Treatment of Human Poisoning (Elsevier, 1988)
2) T.R.Tephly, Life Sciences, 1991, vol. 48, 1031-1041
3) 0.Roe, Pharmacological Reviews, 1955,vol.7, 399-412.
4) P.Wingate, Medical Encyclopedia (Penguin, 1983).
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