Homeless People Are Drinking Antifreeze to Get Drunk

Two men sleeping after drinking antifreeze.

When people think of antifreeze or engine coolant, they typically think of putting it in vehicles in order to keep them from overheating or to keep the water in them from freezing up. But believe it or not, homeless people and many others who can’t afford regular alcoholic drinks are actually drinking this toxic liquid in order to get drunk, despite how dangerous this practice actually is.

Poison control centers around the world are dealing with more and more cases of antifreeze poisonings every year, and many of those that they’re seeing on record are homeless people and alcoholics who are living on the streets or on the fringes of society.

People who own pets may have heard about pets dying from drinking this sweet tasting fluid when they find it on the ground beneath vehicles, but the phenomenon of humans poisoning themselves by drinking it is not as well known or talked about.

Many homeless or people with low income who don’t have the money to buy beer or other consumable alcoholic drinks are purposely drinking antifreeze solutions. These are the same products you might find in any automotive aisle in your local grocery store.

While they may feel short term immediate effects similar to alcohol such as inebriation, they are also dying as a result or finding themselves waking up in the emergency rooms at local hospitals with irreversible damage done to their bodies.


Two Types of Ingredients that Confuse People

A lot of the reasons for poisonings are due to ignorance, misinformation, and sometimes even people wanting to intentionally harm or kill themselves. There’s all different kinds of ingredients used in antifreeze formulations, but the two most common compounds found in them are very different from each other, where one is highly toxic and the other isn’t.

It’s this misunderstanding that causes many people to poison themselves or die each year when they try getting drunk with the more dangerous type. However, both types can be dangerous under certain circumstances and I’ll explain why.


Ethylene Glycol vs Propylene Glycol

The toxic type is ethylene glycol (EG) and it’s this compound which has been responsible for the majority of antifreeze poisonings that are reported, and which also has been used in a number of suicides and even murders over the years. In poorer countries, people sometimes purposely put small amounts of ethylene glycol in “homemade alcohols” to make them a bit stronger, which often causes mass deaths or illnesses in some cases when they do.

The other compound type is known as propylene glycol (PG), which in smaller amounts, isn’t much more dangerous than any regular alcoholic drink you’d order at a bar. This type is commonly used as in various medications and even food additives, so it’s somewhat safe for consumption when used in the right context and amounts. The FDA considers it to be “generally safe”, though in larger amounts or when exposed to it on a regular basis, it can cause health problems in humans that are similar to those often associated with regular alcohol consumption.

Although both these types of alcohols can be found in the majority of antifreeze and coolant bottles, ethylene glycol (EG) is much more commonly used out of the two. Propylene glycol (PG), the less harmful type, costs companies much more than ethylene glycol to use in their products, so it’s used much less frequently in coolants than it’s toxic cousin.

This is why, majority of the time, those who are attempting to get drunk by drinking antifreeze are unwittingly poisoning themselves while risking a slow, agonizing, and painful death. Most of the time they’ve heard about somebody getting drunk by drinking antifreeze, and they drink a concoction that involves ethylene glycol.

Other times, they’ll find an antifreeze that actually does contain the safer type, propylene glycol, but there will be other added ingredients in the liquid mix that can make them sick.

This is why nobody should ever drink anything labeled as antifreeze or engine coolant, because you never know exactly what you’re drinking even if you happen to identify PG as one of the ingredients.


Symptoms

The initial symptoms of both ethylene glycol and propylene glycol typically include inebriation along with feelings of warmth, excitement, and all the same symptoms someone would normally feel when drinking beer or liquor.

However, after an hour or two of having consumed EG, the more alarming symptoms and feelings will begin and people often become nauseous, dizzy, develop headaches, and may start vomiting. More serious side effects can then sometimes ensue including convulsions, confusion, black outs, trouble breathing, and even coma or death.

Effects on Health
When a person drinks or consumes ethylene glycol, the negative effects often won’t be noticed until hours later because it takes a while for the body to start processing, digesting, and breaking down this substance.

It’s then, when the kidneys and other organs begin to break it down, that it’s corrosive and toxic properties become much more obvious. When it’s metabolized in the body, it starts to create byproducts such as oxalic acid, which can kill a person. It starts affecting virtually all the organs, and in particular, the heart and the kidneys.

Eventually, sometimes more quickly than other times, these organs will begin to fail and it’s renal failure (failure of the kidneys) that kills the majority of people who die from EG poisoning.


Occurrence Rates

Based on statistics from the National Poison Data System (NPDS), which is a database with the records of all the poison control centers in the United States, there’s around 5,600 ethylene glycol poisonings reported each year.

Around 19 or more people die each year as a result of these poisonings. Those who don’t die may recover fully, while others often suffer through the rest of their lives with permanent disabilities and damage to their internal organs.


Treatment/Cure

If you or someone you know has consumed ethylene glycol or any antifreeze coolant, you should immediately call 911 for emergency response and advice on what to do. In cases of ethylene glycol poisoning, there are a number of treatments or procedures doctors may have to do depending on the severity of the situation. Fomepizole and Ethanol are two of most commonly used antidotes, but are not normally given together due to an interaction between the two.

Fomepizole
In most cases, at some point during treatment, fomepizole will be administered through IV to most patients. The way this medication works is that it prevents the breakdown of ethylene glycol in the body so it reduces the amount of metabolites that are produced by it, which are what cause most of the damage to a person’s body.

This is the most highly recommended antidote currently available, but it’s also an extremely expensive one in the United States as a single dosage averages around $1,000. The average person who is poisoned by EG requires about three and a half doses of this medication, so the total cost can easily be over $3,000.

But it’s important to note that while it may be costly on the initial hospital bill, it’s still the cheapest option for many people because it helps avoid lifelong dialysis or other complications that can arise when it’s not used.

Also worth nothing is that fomepizole can increase the effects of ethanol alcohol. So somebody who is intoxicated with liquor, beer, or other forms of ethanol alcohol most likely won’t be a good candidate for fomeprizole treatment, as it can be dangerous to mix the two.


Ethanol (Liquor)

The other form of treatment, which is the more traditional form, is ethanol (alcohol). As crazy as it sounds, up until fomepizole was first developed and recommended by the FDA, the majority of emergency rooms and doctors treated EG poisoning by having their patients consume liquor (vodka, gin, etc.) while under their care.

Studies show that this form of treatment is not quite as effective as fomepizole in cases of EG poisoning, but it works in a similar way in that consumption of regular ethanol alcohol prevents the breakdown of EG in the body. This is also the more dangerous form of treatment because it could cause CNS (Central Nervous System) depression and other complications that can occur with an overdose of liquor or alcohol.

It also typically requires dialysis which, as I mentioned already, can be extremely expensive over time. When ethanol treatment is the only option available, it’s usually administered through an IV or even orally if a person is conscious enough to drink it. It’s also given to a patient along with sodium bicarbonate through an IV tube and hemodialysis (where a person has to be connected to a dialysis machine to remove toxins from the kidneys and blood stream).

However, any person who has accidentally or purposely poisoned themselves with ethylene glycol should not try to treat themselves by drinking alcohol, unless directed to do so by a medical professional or poison control employee.

If the severity of poisoning is bad enough, it may actually save your life to go to an emergency room immediately and to be treated with fomepizole or what doctor’s feel is appropriate for your specific condition.