What is Methanol?

Methanol, also known as methyl alcohol, wood alcohol or wood spirits is a chemical with the formula CH3OH (sometimes shortened to MeOH). It is the simplest alcohol, and is a light, colourless liquid with a distinctive odour similar to ethanol (drinking alcohol). 

What is Methanol used for?

On its own, methanol is used in many ways including;

  • As a fuel: Methanol has a high octane rating that offers superior vehicle performance when compared with gasoline
  • For wastewater denitrification: Wastewater has high levels of nitrogen and can wreak havoc on water ecosystems if discharged untreated. Methanol aids in the removal of the nitrogen through the treatment process. 
  • An additive to industrial ethanol: Methanol is added to ethanol produced specifically for industry use to avoid liquor excise taxation.

Methanol is also used as a component of hundreds of other chemicals including formaldehyde, acetic acid and olefins –which are all basic chemical building blocks for a number of common products. An example of some types of materials that are made from methanol include; plastics, synthetic fibres, paints, resins, magnetic film, safety glass laminate, adhesives, solvents, carpeting, insulation, refrigerants, windshield washer fluid, particle board, pigments and dyes.

Wastewater must be treated with Methanol to ensure it can be safely discharged
Wastewater must be treated with Methanol to ensure it can be safely discharged

Methanol Hazards

Exposure to methanol can occur via several routes. They include; exposure to the eyes and skin, ingestion and inhalation.

If methanol enters the eye, it can produce moderate eye irritation and redness. Repeated eye exposure can lead to temporary vision impairment. 

Skin exposure to methanol may result in moderate skin irritation and inflammation. Prolonged and repeated exposure can lead to redness and swelling which may lead to blistering. Whilst short term skin exposure isn’t terribly hazardous, the risk exists where methanol can be absorbed through the skin and make its way into the bloodstream. Repeated absorption can lead to heart, kidney and liver damage.

Ingestion of methanol is highly toxic. Consuming as little as 10ml of pure methanol can result in permanent blindness with 60-200ml considered a lethal dose for most adults. 

Swallowing the chemical may cause aspiration of vomit into the lungs with the risk of haemorrhaging. It may also produce a burning or painful sensation in the mouth, throat, chest and stomach followed by feelings of; nausea, vomiting, headache, dizziness, drunken behaviour, shortness of breath, weakness, fatigue among others.

Inhalation of methanol may lead to poisoning similar to that experienced in ingestion. Minor, but regular exposure to methanol may affect the central nervous system, optic nerves and retinae. Continued or severe exposure can lead to permanent visual impairment and even blindness. Methanol is only slowly eliminated by the body and should be considered as a cumulative poison.

Methanol consumption is extremely toxic. Seek medical advice if ingested.
Methanol consumption is extremely toxic. Seek medical advice if ingested.

Methanol Safety

In the event of eye exposure, flush them with water immediately for at least 15 minutes, ensuring you do not forget to wash under the eyelids. See a medical professional without delay. Removing contact lenses should be undertaken by skilled personnel. 

If skin exposure occurs; remove all contaminated clothing, footwear and accessories and wash your skin and hair with running water, using a safety shower if possible. Seek medical attention if irritation occurs.  

If ingested, do not induce vomiting. However, if vomiting occurs, lean the patient forward (with their head lower than their hips) or place them on their left side to maintain open airways and prevent aspiration. Observe the patient carefully and seek medical attention.

If inhalation occurs, remove the patient from the area and monitor their condition. Lay the patient down and keep them warm and rested. Administer oxygen if breathing is difficult and perform CPR if required/qualified. Seek medical attention without delay. 

Methanol Safety Handling

Emergency eyewash fountains should be accessible in the immediate area of the potential exposure to the chemical. 

Ensure there is adequate ventilation and install local exhaust ventilation if required. 

Wear proper PPE, such as safety glasses with side shields, chemical goggles, gloves, overalls, aprons, respirators gloves, safety gumboots. Some plastic PPE is not recommended when handling hexamine, as they may produce static electricity. 

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