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United States Government Medicine Science

US Government Poisoned Alcohol During Prohibition 630

Hugh Pickens writes "Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist Deborah Blum has an article in Slate about the US government's mostly forgotten policy in the 1920s and 1930s of poisoning industrial alcohols manufactured in the US to scare people into giving up illicit drinking during Prohibition. Known as the 'chemist's war of Prohibition,' the federal poisoning program, by some estimates, killed at least 10,000 people between 1926 and 1933. The story begins with ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919, which banned sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages in the US. By the mid-1920s, when the government saw that its 'noble experiment' was in danger of failing, it decided that the problem was that readily available methyl (industrial) alcohol — itself a poison — didn't taste nasty enough. The government put its chemists to work designing ever more unpalatable toxins — adding such chemicals as kerosene, 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. In 1926, in New York City, 1,200 were sickened by poisonous alcohol; 400 died. The following year, deaths climbed to 700. These numbers were repeated in cities around the country as public-health officials nationwide joined in the angry clamor to stop the poisoning program. But an official sense of higher purpose kept it in place, while lawmakers opposed to the plan were accused of being in cahoots with criminals and bootleggers. The chief medical examiner of New York City during the 1920s, one of the poisoning program's most outspoken opponents, liked to call it 'our national experiment in extermination.'"
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US Government Poisoned Alcohol During Prohibition

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  • Ah yes... (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday February 27, 2010 @08:59PM (#31301068)

    Very much like the US still poisons its opiates by adding acetaminophen to them to ensure that they cannot be taken in very high doses? Ah, the war on drugs!

  • by Garridan ( 597129 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @09:15PM (#31301172)

    c.f. Wikipedia: "Denatured alcohol is ethanol that has additives to make it poisonous and/or unpalatable, and thus, undrinkable."

  • Re:So what? (Score:2, Informative)

    by JohnM4 ( 1709336 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @09:16PM (#31301184)
    That's an important point left out of the post. If they did this all in secret that's a much bigger deal than if people were drinking out of marked bottles.
  • by Ellis D. Tripp ( 755736 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @09:17PM (#31301194) Homepage

    The BATF has a list of approved formulas which must be used to render ethanol undrinkable in order to avoid federal excise taxes. The list is available here:

    http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/27cfr21_03.html [gpo.gov]

    The denaturants used range from simply nasty-tasting, to nausea-inducing, to downright lethal.

    Apparently, Uncle Sam would rather you be dead or blind than getting driunk without paying the booze taxes...

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday February 27, 2010 @09:20PM (#31301218)

    Let's keep it going:

    Eugenics Board of North Carolina [wikipedia.org]

    Emp. added via bold on the interesting parts:

    The Eugenics Board of North Carolina (EBNC) was an agency of the U.S. state of North Carolina created in 1933 after the state legislature authorized the practice of eugenics by state officials four years earlier.

    In 1971, an act of the legislature transferred the EBNC to the newly created Department of Human Resources (DHR), and the secretary of that department was given managerial and executive authority over the board. Under a 1973 law, the Eugenics Board was transformed into the Eugenics Commission. Members of the commission were appointed by the governor and included the director of the Division of Social and Rehabilitative Services of the DHR, the director of Health Services, the chief medical officer of a state institution for the feeble-minded or insane, the chief medical officer of the DHR in the area of mental health services, and the state attorney general. In 1974 the legislature transferred to the judicial system the responsibility for any sterilization proceedings against persons suffering from mental illness or mental retardation.

    The Eugenics Commission was formally abolished by the legislature in 1977.

    The board sterilized about 7,600 people, many of them against their will, between 1929 and 1974, in an attempt to remove mental illness and "social misbehaviour" from the gene pool. Among the victims were 2000 young people, some as young as ten years old.

    Gotta love the government.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday February 27, 2010 @09:20PM (#31301220)

    That had people spewing up blood after one toke over the line. DEA, Uncle Sam, and some guy named Bill are but a few to blame.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday February 27, 2010 @09:21PM (#31301224)

    As others above have noted, this program continues today. 'Denatured' alcohol is just poisoned alcohol. This is a legal mandate, and was kept on after prohibition in order to support high alcohol taxes.

    Ethanol is very cheap to produce and is used by industry as a solvent or antiseptic. The main additive is methanol, which causes blindless before it kills you -- classy.

  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @09:26PM (#31301274) Journal
    Umm, not really.

    In some cases(various household chemicals that a toxicologist really wouldn't recommend drinking, nail polish remover, antifreeze, that sort of thing) Denatonium [wikipedia.org] is used. Horribly bitter; but basically harmless. A lot of alcohol, though, still gets the good, old-fashioned methanol denaturing treatment; which can and will play hell with the consumer.
  • by ragethehotey ( 1304253 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @09:27PM (#31301286)

    That had people spewing up blood after one toke over the line. DEA, Uncle Sam, and some guy named Bill are but a few to blame.

    "However, independent bodies have studied paraquat in this use. Jenny Pronczuk de Garbino,[9] stated: "no lung or other injury in marijuana users has ever been attributed to paraquat contamination". Also a United States Environmental Protection Agency manual states: "... toxic effects caused by this mechanism have been either very rare or nonexistent. Most paraquat that contaminates marijuana is pyrolyzed during smoking to dipyridyl, which is a product of combustion of the leaf material itself (including marijuana) and presents little toxic hazard.""

  • Re:So what? (Score:5, Informative)

    by mysidia ( 191772 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @09:31PM (#31301330)

    The bottles were marked poison before the government started doing this, because the industrial alcohol IS poison, even before the government started meddling.

    To avoid the excise tax on liquors, industrial alcohol has to have methanol added to it.

    The mathonal makes it even more toxic than ordinary ethanol, and unsuitable for drinking. But is required for it to be tax exempt.

    Anyways, the issue is during the prohbition, some people were already drinking that unsuitable stuff. They were desperate, they were (probably) addicted, they took what they could get. So a lot of people were drinking this (a bit) industrial alcohol containing some [probably small] quantity of poisonous methanol.

    So then the government' comes up with this "solution" is to make the stuff more deadly.... swiftly and quietly...brilliant!

    Just because they didn't keep it a secret doesn't mean everyone automatically knew about it.

    Or even that they had a good alternative.

  • Re:Listen you Dolts (Score:5, Informative)

    by Ellis D. Tripp ( 755736 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @09:39PM (#31301398) Homepage

    Actually, we don't "poison" antifreeze with ethylene glycol. Ethylene glycol is used because it makes a good antifreeze.

    Unadulterated ethanol would be perfectly usable for most industrial purposes. But the government mandates the addition of other toxic substances which serve no purpose other than making the ethanol unusable as an intoxicant. That is the key difference here.

  • Re:Ah yes... (Score:4, Informative)

    by ChromeAeonium ( 1026952 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @09:43PM (#31301426)

    And let me fix that for you.

    Ah, the war on some drugs and a friggin' plant and the American people!

  • by Ellis D. Tripp ( 755736 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @09:59PM (#31301534) Homepage

    They studied men who already HAD the disease, and allowed it to progress untreated to see what would happen.

    Still completely unethical, and one of the more atrocious chapters in US medical history. But claiming that the patients were intentionally infected with syphilis by gov't docs is simply wrong, and gives ammunition to those who would deny that the whole thing ever happened.

    OTOH, the government did intentionally inject people (including mentally retarded children) with radioactive isotopes to see what the effects of nuclear fallout would be.

  • Re:Ah yes... (Score:3, Informative)

    by Newer Guy ( 520108 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @10:04PM (#31301580)
    Or tried to spray Paraquat on pot fields in Mexico knowing full well the pot would be smoked by Americans.
  • Re:Ah yes... (Score:5, Informative)

    by insufflate10mg ( 1711356 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @10:09PM (#31301616)
    The acetaminophen is added for extra pain relief - and it does help. 15mg Oxycodone w/ NO-APAP, 30mg, 40mg, 60mg, and 80mg oxycodone-only pills are more popular than the ones with APAP (Tylenol/Acetaminophen). Sure, lower-strength Percocet and Vicodin have acetaminophen in them, but it is not to prevent abuse. Put a whole bottle of Percocet/Vicodin in a cold gallon of water, refrigerate it for several hours, filter out the result, throw away what the filter catches, allow the remaining liquid to evaporate slowly. After the liquid evaporates off of a pan, there will be crystallized particles. Scrape it up, cut out doses, and snort it -- it will be approximately 85-90% the total amount of opiates in the original pills. The acetaminophen you imply is used for malicious purposes will be laying on a coffee filter in the trash.

    The acetaminophen is not to poison a hard abuser; in fact, most doctors would prefer to prescribe the opiate-only preparations due to the toxicity of APAP at high dosages.
  • Still happening (Score:5, Informative)

    by stonecypher ( 118140 ) <stonecypher@gm[ ].com ['ail' in gap]> on Saturday February 27, 2010 @10:20PM (#31301700) Homepage Journal

    This is still going on today with other illegal substances. The US has, for example, been poisoning marijuana fields with paraquat for decades.

  • by xaxa ( 988988 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @10:21PM (#31301720)

    Only some religionists. Others drink alcohol in their ceremonies (e.g. Anglican Christians, and plenty of pagans, druids etc)

  • by sqldr ( 838964 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @10:29PM (#31301746)

    As a recovering alcoholic, they needn't have bothered. Alcohol/ethanol, after being processed by the liver into ethene at much expense of your vitamin B suppplies amongst other things acts as an inhibitory neurotransmitter to the brain, ie. it shuts down certain brain functions by binding to receptors normally associated with dopamine. It also blocks the production of seratonine, which does the opposite.

    After years of abuse, through the natural process of brain cells naturally dying and being re-cultivated, you start to overproduce excitatory emitters and underproduce inhibitory emitters. Eventually, your brain goes mental, and after going cold-turkey you feel like you want to crawl up into a ball and hide somewhere dark and quiet. In worse cases, alcohol withdrawal can kill you.

    Brain cells last a long time. I spent 6 months with a neurological illness after 10 years of abuse.

    All I can say is that the smell of the stuff now makes me feel physically sick. Poisoning it to harm people who never had a problem is just going to make even more people ill.

    Then again, neuroscience wasn't really the world's strong point in the 20s.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday February 27, 2010 @10:32PM (#31301756)

    I do not understand the desire to dress up outrages to enhance their shock value. There is no need for the unsubstantiated FUD of "Doctors paid by Washington injected syphilis into unsuspecting indigent Americans ..." The infections were naturally acquired. But they were kept untreated for decades, and allowed to progress and be spread to the wives and children of the men. The men were deceived as to the purpose of the study and the procedures they underwent, kept in ignorance of their infection and its progression, and actively obstructed if they tried to access treatment elsewhere. The facts are damning enough.

    There was a special on it on PBS Nova, which is well worth watching.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday February 27, 2010 @11:05PM (#31301996)

    no intelligent comment has ever started with "Dude." acetaminophen (APAP) is added to oxycodone to make vicodin because it makes the drug more effective. opiates are good at relieving pain quickly, but don't work great for prolonged pain. By adding APAP the dose interval is increased. There have been many of studies comparing opiates w/o APAP and opiates w/ APAP for relieving moderate pain and the synergy of opiates and APAP is well established.

  • by dbIII ( 701233 ) on Saturday February 27, 2010 @11:09PM (#31302022)
    For some industrial uses you want to get that last couple of percent of water out of the ethanol - which you just can't do by distillation if it's a mix of pure water and ethanol (or mash or whatever). The sort of additives you can put in to make distillation to greater purity possible are volatile hydrocarbons such as benzene - pretty nasty stuff to drink. I think that is why some extremely nasty stuff is on that approved list. The answer is to treat high purity ethanol that may have things like that in there as a dangerous poison that people would like to steal, and that is usually what is done.
    For the lower purity stuff that's more easily accessable IMHO it's an extremely bad idea to put anything dangerous in there, and that includes methanol. Where I am "methylated spirits" has no methanol in it because it was killing too many people.
  • I hate to burst your bubble, but presidents have nothing to do with Constitutional amendments

    You are correct on that part. However, prohibition did not actually prohibit anything until the passage of the Volstead Act [wikipedia.org] which actually defined what (product) was being prohibited. And that act was vetoed by Wilson.

    This was a progressive (socialist/fascist/communist/liberal) idea

    If you group socialism, fascism, communism, and liberalism all under the same umbrella, you need to actually read up on those four very different philosophical structures. There are profound differences between those four ideals, both in theory and in application.

    However equally important is to realize that there was nothing "progressive" about repealing the sale of "intoxicating beverages". Indeed, it would be better viewed as a regressive act, as it was in no way empowering for the lower socio-economic classes.

    Unfortunately, progressivism had it's claws in both parties, but is mostly gone from the Republican party.

    You have a strange view of "progressivism". It is no small wonder you posted as an anonymous coward.

    This comment is going to get modded to hell.

    Being as there is no moderation for "factually inaccurate", you are safe from reasonable moderation. Although some may consider your post to be far enough removed from reason to be trolling.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday February 27, 2010 @11:55PM (#31302322)

    Wow the government sure was crazy back then, glad they would never do anything to intentionaly hurt people anymore!

    WRONG! The DEA spray a strong poison called paraquat on outdoor marijuana plants now! It can cause death and injury to humans.

  • by PopeRatzo ( 965947 ) * on Sunday February 28, 2010 @12:05AM (#31302400) Journal

    Don't forget, they tried to poison pot, too.

    It was during the Nixon Administration, if I remember correctly. And sadly, there was never a US president who could have used a few bong hits more than him.

  • by Sir_Lewk ( 967686 ) <sirlewk.gmail@com> on Sunday February 28, 2010 @12:05AM (#31302410)

    Wow, talk about completely missing the entire point of this article. You honestly think government mandated poison is a good idea? You are one sick fuck.

  • by reverseengineer ( 580922 ) on Sunday February 28, 2010 @01:18AM (#31302936)
    A lot of denatured alcohol is now denatured with a substance called denatomium benzoate, which does not pose serious known health effects, but is unbearably bitter in even parts per million concentrations. Most times when ethyl alcohol is used in a cosmetic product, it is labeled as "denatured alcohol" or "SD alcohol 40" it contains this substance. Benzene is rarely specifically added as a denaturing agent to alcohol, on account of it being carcinogenic. Not saying it never happens, just that it requires a special lack of scruples. Benzene however is occasionally used as an azeotrope in anhydrous alcohol- to distill ethanol past around 95%, you need to set up another azeotrope that boils off earlier ( taking the water with it) and leaving absolute alcohol. So a lot of high proof industrial alcohol has traces of things like benzene or cyclohexane as a consquence of its production.
  • by colonelquesadilla ( 1693356 ) on Sunday February 28, 2010 @02:40AM (#31303382)
    I know it's illegal but lots of people do home distilling: http://www.homedistiller.org/ [homedistiller.org] http://www.home-distilling.com/ [home-distilling.com] http://www.home-distillation.com/ [home-distillation.com] http://www.brewhaus.com/ [brewhaus.com] I've never tried it, I stick to homebrewing, but lots of people do, and for the most part elliot ness doesn't come knocking unless they start selling it, and they don't usually go blind. Actual mileage may vary.
  • by AndWat ( 122852 ) on Sunday February 28, 2010 @03:13AM (#31303564)

    Simple solution - give them their next fix for free.

    This isn't a theoretical idea - the British did it for forty years, from 1926 to 1964, and it meant that heroin addiction simply wasn't a social problem. They only stopped because do-gooders got scared about increasing use in the 60s.

    It's not like heroin actually costs money to make. It's only the illegality of it that causes the sort of descent into hell you are worried about.

    There are plenty of people who have regular easy access to heroin - doctors, for example - who lead perfectly good lives, holding down jobs and relationships, while being full throttle addicts.

    Addicts only crave the drug when they can't get enough (If no amount is enough, then they have a serious personality problem, which has nothing to do with the drug). It's the prohibition that stops them getting enough. So it's the prohibition that causes the harm.

  • by feuerfalke ( 1034288 ) on Sunday February 28, 2010 @03:22AM (#31303612)
    More unnecessary and ignorant hyperbole. Believe it or not, it's actually possible to be a functional, productive member of society while addicted to heroin. My boyfriend was a heroin addict for nine years - it took him two years to even realize that he was addicted, simply because he'd had continuous access to heroin up until that point. Heroin, on its own, is cheap - its illegality is what drives up the price and reduces accessibility. Make heroin legal, and addicts will be able to resume their normal lives, just like how tobacco smokers mysteriously manage to lead perfectly normal lives while being addicted to nicotine.
  • Re:Still happening (Score:3, Informative)

    by evilviper ( 135110 ) on Sunday February 28, 2010 @03:41AM (#31303700) Journal

    The US has, for example, been poisoning marijuana fields with paraquat for decades.

    Paraquat is a herbicide. It's effects on the marijuana should be fast enough that it can't be sold and used. Statistics show that only a very small number of human deaths from the agent are unintentional, so I don't even see any POTENTIAL basis for your claim.

  • by mosb1000 ( 710161 ) <mosb1000@mac.com> on Sunday February 28, 2010 @03:50AM (#31303734)
  • Re:Oh, damn. (Score:3, Informative)

    by Scrameustache ( 459504 ) on Sunday February 28, 2010 @10:56AM (#31305718) Homepage Journal

    So what's going to happen to all those "at least we aren't killing our own people" arguments offered in defence of various despicable actions carried out in Iraq by armed forces of the United States?

    This is about the war on recreational drugs. You could have went with Afghanistan, where the poppies grow, that would have been appropriate.
    Iraq is about oil reserves, try to keep up.

  • by Jeremy Erwin ( 2054 ) on Sunday February 28, 2010 @12:29PM (#31306504) Journal

    The enabling legislation for prohibition, The Volstead Act [wikipedia.org], was passed by Congress on October 18 1919, and Wilson's veto overridden on 28 October 1919 . The vote in the Senate was 65-20 (38 Republicans and 27 Democrats voted for the measure. 9 Republicans and 11 Democrats voted against it.) [nytimes.com] and 176-55 in the house [nytimes.com]. The bill's sponsor, Andrew Volstead, was a Republican.

    The 21st amendment was passed by Congress on February 20,1933. The Cullen Harrison Act, which legalized 3.2 % beer, passed congress in March 21, 1933. It passed the House by a vote of 316-97. Because of copyright restrictions, I can't easily find the roll calls, but congress was overwhelmingly Democratic.

    Members of both parties advocated for and against prohibition-- it was not a "partisan" issue. If you seek a party to blame, however, be aware that the man ultimately responsible for supervising prohibition enforcement., Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, was a Republican.

  • by mosb1000 ( 710161 ) <mosb1000@mac.com> on Thursday March 04, 2010 @05:51PM (#31363326)
    This is explained well in The Shack [amazon.com]. This book speaks directly to the main challanges people have to understanding Christianity: Why does God let bad things happen? and What is God like? You are essentially asking the second question, though you may not realize it. If you are curious about how a Christian would answer your question, you should definitely read this book.

Competence, like truth, beauty, and contact lenses, is in the eye of the beholder. -- Dr. Laurence J. Peter