Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Methanol/Denatured Alcohol -- Safe Handling

Methanol, which is what comes in a yellow bottle of HEET, is a popular fuel for alcohol stoves.  Methanol is however toxic.  Toxic as in deadly.

Denatured alcohol typically contains a lot of methanol.  For example, Klean Strip SLX Denatured Alcohol is typically about 50% methanol.  Therefore the following applies not only to just methanol but also to denatured alcohol.  Even if your brand of denatured alcohol doesn't contain a lot of methanol, the other denaturing agents can be equally toxic. 

As to dangerous amounts: 10ml pure methanol can cause blindness, 30ml can kill, but 100ml usually is required to kill.  Each bottle of HEET contains 355ml, enough to kill you three times over.  BUT don't freak outWe're here to burn this stuff, not drink it.  Gasoline isn't particularly health friendly either, but we burn it every day in our cars.

Methanol/denatured alcohol can be used safely if used with reasonable care.  
  • Methanol/denatured alcohol isn't instant death in one drop like cyanide or something, but it's best to keep it off your hands.   If you do get methanol/denatured alcohol on your hands, wipe it off.  I personally avoid getting it on my hands by using a flip top squeeze bottle. My favorite arrangement is a squeeze bottle with a Packafeather cap. I get little or no splashing and have excellent control.
Left:  A bottle of "yellow" HEET (methanol).  Right:  A squeezable bottle of denatured alcohol with the excellent Packafeather cap.
  • Avoid fumes both from unburned methanol/denatured alcohol and from methanol/denatured alcohol undergoing combustion.   I burn methanol/denatured alcohol outdoors in a well ventilated area. Methanol/denatured alcohol usually burns pretty cleanly, but still, better to be careful than not.  When not in use, I keep my methanol/denatured alcohol tightly capped.
  • Avoid contaminating something you might ingest.  I never stove food in the same container as methanol/denatured alcohol.
  • Avoid spills.  My alcohol squeeze bottle goes inside a Ziploc bag, sometimes two, which in turn usually goes inside my cook pot.  Being inside my cook pot a) prevents accidental squeezing and b) prevents damage to the Ziplocs.   My cook pot goes into yet another Ziploc bag. The Ziploc bag my pot is in keeps soot off the pack but would also prevent any alcohol from leaking.  Of course, I always inspect my pot before cooking. I've never had a problem, but if there were any alcohol residue, I'd clean it up before using the pot.
  • Never, ever, UNDER *ANY* CIRCUMSTANCES drink methanol/denatured alcohol. Ingesting it is the number one most dangerous thing you can do; all else pales by comparison. If you ingest methanol/denatured alcohol, you might very well die a very painful death. Even if you get to a hospital, your chances are NOT good from what I've read. Using drink bottles for methanol/denatured alcohol storage is not a good idea.
  • In every way possible, protect children.  Every time my little daughter sees a clear bottle of alcohol, she says "water" and wants some.  She doesn't know any better.  Keep out of the reach of small children.  For older children, do everything you can to avoid confusion.  A thirsty child in the night may grab something that looks like a drink bottle and down a good slug before they realize how nasty it is.  Again, do not use drink bottles to store methanol.  It's just not a good idea.
So, be careful, but don't be intimidated.  Methanol/denatured alcohol is safe as a stove fuel if you handle it with reasonable care and store it properly.


Appendix:  Myths About Methanol

For whatever reason, there are a variety of myths out there about methanol.  These myths seem to involve methanol more so than denatured alcohol.  Such myths suggest that methanol can be used for hand washing, facial cleansing, mosquito repellant, treatment of bug bites, wound cleansing, to kill head lice, etc. Methanol is toxic and is really not suitable for any of these applications, particularly wound cleansing.  Ethanol might be appropriate for some of these applications, but methanol is not.  Bodily contact with methanol should be avoided.

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