What’s Your Poison?

a poisoned glass

Leatrice Joy and Thomas Meighan in “Manslaughter,” Cecil B. DeMille, 1922
Don’t drink the demon cocktail!

“Alcohol is a poison.” I first encountered this statement in, of all places, a cocktail book. “It’s a delicious poison… but will slowly kill you,” the book’s author, a well-respected expert in cocktails, assured me.

say what?

Now, I grew up in a German family, and trust me when I say there was no stigma attached to alcohol consumption AT ALL. So the idea that alcohol would be poisonous when 1. a good portion of the world drinks a lot of it on a regular basis and 2. this has been the case since literally the dawn of civilization (the oldest known written recipe for beer dates from 7000 BCE), took me aback. Sure, Romans poisoned themselves by drinking from lead cups, but then they realized, “Oh wait, that shit’s poisonous,” and stopped that. We aren’t still merrily drinking from lead cups.

So I was skeptical. But I kept encountering this idea that alcohol was a poison all over the place: morning radio shows, Lifehacker, etc. So I decided to do some research into the issue. You know, just in case.

Well, guess what peoples? Shocker: alcohol’s NOT a poison. According to the definition, a poison is “a substance that, when introduced into or absorbed by a living organism, causes death or injury;” however, toxicologists emphasize that “the dosage makes the poison.” In large quantities, just about anything is a poison, including oxygen, water, and salt, all of which are required for human survival. The same is true for alcohol: if someone ingests too much of it, they’ll get sick and possibly die. That, however, doesn’t make alcohol a poison any more than people dying from hyperhydration makes water poisonous.

Not only that, but long-term studies show moderate drinkers live twice as long as teetotalers, and even heavy drinkers outlive abstainers by 6%. These studies, contrary to the assumptions in the Lifehacker article I cited earlier, adjusted for the social and stress-reducing aspects of alcohol (i.e., you’re living longer because you’re not as stressed and you’re socializing with people, NOT because you’re consuming alcohol) and still found that alcohol positively affected the body, with or without social interaction or stress, helping people live longer.

So alcohol is most definitely not a poison… but once upon a time, that wasn’t the case. During Prohibition, most liquor was made by bootleggers out of industrial alcohol. This was basically grain alcohol “denatured” (a process mandated by the Federal government) to be undrinkable. Companies would either add methyl alcohol or bittering agents to the alcohol to make it unpotable. Bootleggers who got hold of the industrial alcohol would “renature” it so people could drink it… only sometimes they didn’t do a good enough job and their customers would get sick.

the poisoner's handbook by deborah blum

This didn’t deter Prohibition drinkers from downing their gin, however, so in 1926 the US Treasury Department mandated that even more deadly poisons be used in denaturing formulas. According to Deborah Blum in her book, The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, the list of chemicals used in grain alcohol included:

…kerosene and brucine (a plant alkaloid closely related to strychnine), gasoline, benzene, cadmium, iodine, zinc, mercury salts, nicotine, ether, formaldehyde, chloroform, camphor, carbolic acid, quinine, and acetone. The Treasury Department also demanded more methyl alcohol be added—up to 10 percent of total product. It was the last that proved most deadly.

As soon as these treated alcohols hit the streets (on Christmas Day, no less), they proved deadly, killing 23 people and sending 60 to the hospital in New York City alone. By the end of Prohibition, at least 10,000 people had died as a direct result of the poisoning of grain alcohol by the Treasury Department.

With the end of Prohibition, the Treasury Department stopped poisoning alcohol and the “chemists’ war,” as it was known, drifted into the obscure and forgotten pages of US history. Yet the paranoia that alcohol is a poison persists, and is still used by groups like the KKK, Women’s Christian Temperance League, and Students Against Drunk Driving to attempt to scare people into not imbibing.

If it didn’t work during Prohibition, when alcohol actually WAS poisonous, it’s probably not going to work now. Alcohol may not be toxic, but ideologues with power are; and unlike poisoned industrial alcohol, they’re still around.


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About Tasha Brandstatter

Tasha Brandstatter is a freelance writer, bibliophile, art historian, and cocktail blogger at Liquid Persuasion. Feel free to chat with her about libations and books @heidenkind.

  • Colleen

    10,000 people died! Did Prohibition end because that was the magic number for people to scratch their heads and say, “Huh. Maybe this ain’t working.”?

    • http://heidenkind.blogspot.com/ Tasha B. (heidenkind)

      Ha! Yeah, right. I’m sure they never even figured into that decision.

  • Deb M

    Damn, I keep forgetting to read that Deborah Blum book! I guess I need to drink more wine. I really prefer to drink when I am being social but I don’t like to be social. You can see my dilemma.

    • http://heidenkind.blogspot.com/ Tasha B. (heidenkind)

      You could always drink while you’re on Facebook. ;)

  • Shannon McIntyre Hooper

    This was a fantastic post. I had no idea about the Treasury Department thing – wow. Wow, wow, wow.