Over the past three months, at least eight Americans have fallen mysteriously ill and died while on vacation in the Dominican Republic. Though the Dominican government insists that the deaths are not connected, experts say that many of victims have had eerily similar symptoms, leading police to investigate what they believe could be the shared source: Bootleg alcohol.
Earlier this week, the New York Post reported that local authorities are looking into whether bootleg liquor could explain the illnesses, as many of the victims reportedly drank from their hotel’s swim-up pool bar or their room’s minibar before their death. Though not all of the Americans’ causes of death have been reported, a significant number of the people who have died suffered from heart attack, pulmonary edema, respiratory failure, and vomiting blood.
In an interview last week with the New York Times, Dr. Tom Inglesby, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said the Americans’ shared symptoms are “consistent with poisoning.” Lawrence Kobilinsky, a forensic science professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, got even more specific in his interview with the Post: He said that the symptoms resemble either methanol or pesticide poisoning. (Methanol, the simplest form of alcohol, is closely related to ethanol, which is normally found in spirits, wine, and beer.)
But how, exactly, could bootleg liquor — laced with methanol or something else — cause the deaths? In an interview with the Cut, Kobilinsky described what would happen were someone to ingest even half an ounce of pure methanol, which he says “can be toxic and even lethal.”
“[Methanol] is absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract, and in the liver, enzymes convert alcohol into formaldehyde, and formaldehyde is subsequently converted to formic acid, which is highly toxic,” Kobilinsky told the Cut. Formic acid will prevent your body from using oxygen, which will cause your blood to become acidified. This, Kobilinsky said, is when your body starts to shut down.
“The heart will pump faster, blood pressure will increase, and the victim will breathe more rapidly, trying to acquire more oxygen into their lungs,” he told the Cut. “There are neurological effects as well, and the toxicity will also affect contractility of the heart muscle, causing heart failure. This can result in pulmonary edema and acute respiratory distress.”
Even so, the resorts where the deaths have occurred, as well as Dominican authorities, maintain that the fatalities were isolated incidents. The bootleg liquor hypothesis is an intriguing theory, but as of now, it’s still just a theory.