Device May Help Drinkers Avoid Alcohol Tainted With Deadly Chemicals

A variety of liquor is seen at the Pueblo Bonito Rose resort hotel on Medano Beach, on May 12, 2012, in Cabo San Lucas, Baja California, Mexico. A device can detect methanol before the bottle of liquor is opened. Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

The mysterious death of a 20-year-old American tourist in Mexico brought light to the devastating effects of consuming tainted alcohol. The case was one of many that led the U.S. State Department to caution travelers about the harms of fake booze. The tricky part of telling if your vacation cocktail is contaminated is that it typically tastes no different than untainted versions. For those concerned, there's a device that may be able to detect fake spirits before the bottle is even opened.

The handheld device (as seen in the video below), uses a laser to shine through materials such as colored glass and opaque plastic. Within one minute, information is readily available about the contents of the bottle. Interestingly enough, the instrument was not initially designed to be used for the food and drink market. In fact, you may have even seen a SORS (spatially offset Raman spectroscopy) device before.

"Although you have not seen them in American airports yet, there are many SORS devices deployed through European airports which currently check for explosives" within plastic and glass bottles, lead researcher Roy Goodacre, a professor at the University of Manchester, tells Newsweek via e-mail.

Fake alcohol—including counterfeit, contraband, illicit and surrogate products—pose many public health challenges and add up to substantial revenue losses for governments, Robert Tobiassen, a former chief counsel for the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, who was not involved in the research, tells Newsweek via e-mail.

"Combating these products requires a multi-tool strategy. Science-based tools like SORS are an important part of this strategy along with other tools such as effective law enforcement to prevent these products from being manufactured or sold," Tobiassen says.

Goodacre and his colleagues used the gadget to analyze 141 brands of Scotch whisky, rum, gin and vodka in closed glass bottles. The device was successful in detecting flavorings, methanol and other compounds that are often added to counterfeit products. Methanol—an alcohol used as an antifreeze and to fuel racing cars—is extremely poisonous and if ingested can cause dizziness, abdominal pain, and in serious cases blindness, seizures and ultimately death.

"This new approach can detect methanol at levels of only 0.025 percent, which is well below the maximum human tolerance threshold of 2 percent methanol in a 40 percent spirit drink," Goodacre says.

Methanol poisoning is a worldwide problem and "the reporting of it seems to be on the increase," he noted. Although the liquid can be absorbed through skin or eye contact, methanol poisonings usually occur as a result of drinking contaminated beverages, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The research team, whose findings are published in the journal Nature, envision the device being used by regulatory bodies, but in the future it may be on the market for personal use.

"You can imagine that with further development and miniaturization, then consumers themselves could have a device that they can also check whether they have been served bootleg alcohol in a bar or club," Goodacre says.