Sunday, June 1, 2008

How dangerous is methanol?

That is a question which occurs to just about everyone who considers making their own biodiesel. Journey To Forever addresses that question:

Fact: Methanol is a poisonous chemical that can blind you or kill you, and as well as drinking it you can absorb it through the skin and breathe in the fumes.

Question: How much does it take to kill you?

Short answer: Anything from five teaspoons to more than half a pint, but nobody really knows.

Fact: Human susceptibility to the acute effects of methanol intoxication is extremely variable. The minimum dose of methanol causing permanent visual defects is unknown. The lethal dose of methanol for humans is not known for certain. The minimum lethal dose of methanol in the absence of medical treatment is put at between 0.3 and 1 g/kg.

That means it's thought to take at least 20 grams of methanol to kill an average-sized person, or 25 ml, five teaspoonsful. Or it might need more than three times as much, 66 grams, 17 teaspoonsful, or maybe more, and even then it'll only kill you if you can't reach a doctor within a day or two, and maybe it still won't kill you.

But it definitely can kill you. If you drink five teaspoonsful of pure methanol you'll need medical treatment even if it doesn't kill you. Yet people have survived doses of 10 times as much -- a quarter of a litre, half a pint -- without any permanent harm. But others haven't survived much lower doses. Getting rapid medical attention is crucial, though the poisoning effects can be slow to develop.

Authorities advise that swallowing up to 1.3 grams or 1.7 ml of methanol or inhaling methanol vapour concentrations below 200 ppm should be harmless for most people. No severe effects have been reported in humans of methanol vapour exposures well above 200 ppm.

Out of 1,601 methanol poisonings reported in the US in 1987 the death rate was 0.375%, or 1 in 267 cases. It might have been only 1 in more than a thousand cases because most cases weren't reported. Most cases were caused by drinking badly made moonshine, which is a worldwide problem.

Fiction: "Methanol is ... a very active chemical against which the human body has no means of defence. It is absorbed easily through the skin and there is no means of elimination from the body, so levels of methanol dissolved in the blood accumulate."

That's from a British website trying to sell Straight Vegetable Oil (SVO) solvent additives by frightening people with the alleged perils of biodiesel.

Fact: 30 litres of fruit juice will probably contain up to 20 grams of methanol, near the official minimum lethal dose. Methanol is in the food we eat, in fresh fruit and vegetables, beer and wine, diet drinks, artificial sweeteners.

Not only that, methanol occurs naturally in humans. It's a natural component of blood, urine, saliva and the air you breathe out. It's there anyway even if you've never been exposed to chemical methanol or its fumes.

Methanol is eliminated from the body as a normal matter of course via the urine and exhaled air and by metabolism. Getting rid of it takes from a few hours for low doses to a day or two for higher doses. Some proportion of a dose of methanol just goes straight through, excreted by the lungs and kidneys unchanged. The normal background-level quantities of methanol in humans are eliminated and replenished all the time as a matter of course.

Read more

Methanol MSDS

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