Smartphone device can detect toxic drinks

Sophie Moore

Scientists have invented a portable drinks testing device which could be used by makers and consumers of bootleg alcohol to detect levels of toxic methanol in their brew.

From 2017 to 2019, more than 1800 people died and 7100 people were affected by methanol poisoning.

Alcoholic drinks can be spiked with up to 50 per cent methanol or ethanol, a common and cheap way to increase the volume and potency of a beverage.

Methanol may also accumulate in incorrectly brewed, distilled or stored alcohol, particularly among home-made fruit spirits.

Up to 90 per cent of poisonings have occurred in Asia.

More than 300 people died and 1000 became ill in Iran after ingesting what they thought to be a coronavirus cure.

In India, 100 people died after consuming bootleg liquor in 2019.

Meanwhile, in Sydney a man died in 2018 of acute methanol poisoning after drinking bootleg Balkan's brandy.

Currently, the only way to test for methanol is in a laboratory performing expensive and slow liquid chromatography, which separates then measures different types of chemicals within a mixture.

But by turning to mobile technology, researchers found they could pair their palm-sized, methanol and ethanol sensor to smartphones to detect then display the amount of toxic chemicals in a drink.

To test the sensor, project leader Andreas Guntner and colleagues from Swiss public research university ETH Zurich spiked 89 alcoholic beverages with methanol.

When placed over the drinks the sensor absorbed its vapour or gas and processed the methanol or ethanol contents.

An app then displayed their levels, including a warning if the methanol level was above the recommended two per cent baseline.

According to their results, published in Nature Food science journal, the sensor worked consistently and accurately for more than 107 days and on different drinks from across the world.

The researchers hope the simple, cheap device could be rolled out among law enforcement, customs staff and also as a methanol breath-test for first responders and in emergency rooms when dealing with highly ill, intoxicated patients.

The modular design could also be adapted to detect other food contaminants, including formaldehyde16, or to test the freshness of food by detecting levels of ammonia from spoiling seafood.