Aussie man's battle against the deadly threat in Bali bars and resorts

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For Australian Colin Ahearn, the 20 recent deaths in Costa Rica confirmed to be caused by methanol poisoning are a bitter pill to swallow.

“The ripple effect that 20 deaths will cause is in the thousands of people and is just heartbreaking,” he told Yahoo News Australia.

The Perth man’s anger is understandable. He spends much of his time working tirelessly to raise awareness about the deadly hidden dangers in areas with weak economies that rely on tourists’ spending power to survive.

It’s that financial struggle that prompts locals in these areas to often skimp when it comes to alcohol, creating bootleg liquors.

Mr Ahearn centres his attentions on the popular Indonesian island of Bali – the holiday hotspot synonymous with Australian travellers and to the east of the Gili Islands where Australian-Kiwi teenager Liam Davies died from methanol poisoning in 2013 after consuming replica vodka-based drinks.

Liam’s death prompted a wave of media attention, as have the 20 deaths in Costa Rica since June, which the government has since confirmed was a result of the potentially fatal byproduct of distillation, regularly left behind in bootleg spirits.

Photo shows Colin Ahearn who is working to raise awareness of methanol poisoning.
Colin Ahearn has been working for years to raise awareness of methanol poisoning. Source: Supplied/Colin Ahearn

But Mr Ahearn - who has since worked closely with Liam’s parents in a battle against fake drink - says a shift in perspective needs to happen as the world can’t just stand up and take note when people fall victim to methanol poisoning.

“If us as media consumers don’t see people dying from methanol poisoning, we naturally assume the problem has gone,” he said.

In the past, hundreds of Indonesians have died from methanol poisoning, with up to 10 a day at the peak of the problem, the Methanol Institute says.

Yet their deaths rarely get the coverage in the media which would prompt serious concern for visitors and parents of teens who flock to the island of Bali each year for schoolies.

A report by the Centre for Indonesian Policy Studies (CIPS) states that 487 people died from illegal alcohol poisoning between 2013 and 2016 in Indonesia.

Photo shows Liam Davies who unwittingly drank bootleg spirits in Indonesia, proving fatal.
Liam Davies unwittingly drank bootleg spirits in Indonesia, proving fatal. Source: LIAM Foundation

However, it is understood many other methanol related deaths are ruled to be caused by something else, for example bleeding in the brain.

While Costa Rican officials are actively pursuing the origins of the tainted drinks, many under-developed countries struggle to hold anyone accountable over methanol poisoning incidents until national investigations proceed over mass deaths.

Unwitting tourists regularly duped

There have also been instances of industrial methanol, a lethal solvent, added to illegal alcohol as a substitute to evade high taxes on imported drinks.

A locally fermented drink in Bali known as arak, distilled from grapes and aniseed, is regularly used in counterfeit spirits. Yet according to Mr Ahearn, its quality has seriously decreased in recent years as the demand for bootleg spirit increased.

“[In the past] Arak still had heart in the production, it had generations that had been taught to produce it and had a level of pride,” he said.

As a result, methanol is far more prominent in counterfeit drinks which make their way into the bars and clubs of Bali.

Mr Ahearn said the operation in Bali to deceive unwitting tourists is so sophisticated that fake bottles are almost identical to the real thing. Some bars even collect old bottles of genuine spirits to refill with their concoctions.

He said bottles are even starting to appear on store shelves containing bootleg spirits.

And while statistically deaths are relatively rare as result of methanol poisoning, Mr Ahearn says that every time someone buys a drink made with bottled spirits in Bali, they “get a free ticket” in the methanol lottery.

Photos show Indonesian police guards sitting with a stock of recently seized bootleg liquor in 2018.
Indonesian police guard the stock of recently seized bootleg liquor in 2018. Source: Getty Images

While Mr Ahearn says methanol poisoning is “absolutely a global problem”, he identifies Zante in Greece, some areas of the Philippines, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic - where a spate of recent deaths have been linked to methanol poisoning - and Bali as hotspots for tainted drinks.

One of the biggest problems with methanol is being able to detect it.

Methanol is odourless and tasteless and people can often mistake its effects with the consumption of alcohol, according to the World Health Organisation.

With its consumption alongside ethanol, there is a delay in metabolism resulting in a delay in the “onset of toxicity for many hours”.

Symptoms include drowsiness and victims may become unsteady and disinhibited.

Photo shows Indonesian coastline. One of the nation's top tourist destinations is Bali which is a haven for Aussie travellers.
While Indonesia may seem a paradise, there is a deadly hidden danger in many of its bars. Source: Getty, file.

As time passes, those affected may suffer headaches, as well as vomiting and shortness of breath.

In the worst cases, methanol poisoning can cause blindness and death from respiratory arrest.

It takes just 60ml of methanol to kill someone.

Aussie starts Just Don’t Drink Spirits in Bali page

Mr Ahearn uses his popular Facebook page Just Don’t Drink Spirits in Bali to raise awareness of methanol poisoning not just for Australians but all visitors to the holiday island.

He regularly shares videos and content he has collated to ensure the correct information is available to tourists.

“It was very clear that people needed a place to get more access up to date information and have access to someone to chat with almost in live time,” he told Yahoo News Australia.

One video he shared to his page went viral last year after revealing a story about a group of teens drinking cocktails in Kuta.

Mr Ahearn said there is a recurring problem online where opinion and misinformation can often be misconstrued as fact.

His presence online has gradually developed since starting the page several years after his initial meeting with Liam Davies’ parents Lhani and Tim Davies back in 2013.

Mr Ahearn has worked hand in hand with the pair over the last six years to raise awareness of methanol poisoning.

The Davies’ charity, Lifesaving Initiatives About Methanol (LIAM) Foundation, has made substantial progress in preventing methanol poisoning in Indonesia, funding the training of over 8000 medical professionals to be able to detect methanol poisoning.

They have also been behind the change in legislation that introduced ethanol blockers in hospitals – a vital aid which gives the body time to receive treatment.

The photo shows a genuine bottle of Captain Morgan on the left and a bootleg version on the right purchased in Bali. The bottles are almost identical.
A genuine bottle of Captain Morgan on the left and an alleged bootleg version on the right both purchased in Bali. Source: Supplied

The advancements in hospitals in Indonesia has even prompted Mr Ahearn to suggest methanol poisoning victims would be better placed in a Bali hospital as opposed to a Sydney one, for example.

“There are now hundreds of people that are brave enough to have a discussion with people that are drinking risky spirits in Bali. That is the gold in all this,” he said.

There are dozens of methanol awareness pages on Facebook, which are now working together to create a unified worldwide page to tackle the issue, Mr Ahearn revealed.

Avoiding methanol poisoning

As Mr Ahearn’s campaign group’s name states, the easiest way to avoid methanol poisoning is to stay clear of spirits on the island and in other notorious hotspots.

“Really the only way to be 100 percent sure is simply not drink spirits from Bali. No cocktails, no free poured bar mixed drink, no shots or shooter and certainly no arak based drinks,” he advised.

He also recommended to stay clear of run down bars and establishments with extremely cheap drinks. However, he did note there have also been cases of methanol poisoning from respected establishments before.

The photo shows a collection of pre-mixed sealed drinks which Colin Ahearn says are safe to drink overseas.
Colin Ahearn says pre-mixed sealed drinks are fine to drink abroad. Source: Colin Ahearn

“Don't just assume that the smaller dodgier looking venues are the ones to worry about, there has also been methanol poisonings reported from 4 and 5 star resorts in the past as well,” Mr Ahearn noted.

While Mr Ahearn noted the chances of being poisoned are extremely low, “every drink has the possibility of being that one drink that is tainted and kills you.”

He said a good selection of pre-mixed drinks in sealed cans and bottles are an alternative, as well as wines, beers and ciders.

He also suggests purchasing duty-free spirits en route to holiday destinations to guarantee the product is genuine.

Mr Ahearn stresses however, he is merely offering advice to visitors and ultimately is its their decision what they consume.

“If people choose to drink that is their choice, it's a free world for sure,” he said.

“I do get very defensive however, when opinionated people with poor information advise others that it’s all a myth and it's fine to drink anything you want there.”

And while he says the problem will never be fully eradicated, he said education on the matter is almost as good.

“We will never stop organised crime and the mongrels that sell this death in a bottle, but if we can teach people not to drink it, we win, they lose.”

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