The US Government’s Decision to Deliberately Poison Alcohol Harmed Thousands
Denatured alcohol, also known as “wood spirits,” is industrial alcohol adulterated with chemicals to make it undrinkable. This practice emerged as a response to liquor taxes imposed on drinkable alcohol, providing a legal exemption for manufacturers. Prohibition disrupted the supply chain of regular drinkable alcohol, leading bootleggers to steal and re-distill industrial alcohol, making it America’s primary source of liquor by the mid-1920s. The US Treasury Department attempted to deter this practice by revamping denaturing formulas, adding toxins such as acetone, quinine, formaldehyde, nicotine, camphor, chloroform, zinc, iodine, kerosene, and gasoline.
The most dangerous addition was at least 10% methyl alcohol or methanol, commonly used in antifreeze, resulting in a public health disaster. Contaminated alcohol led to numerous illnesses and deaths, prompting debates on the morality of deliberate poisoning by the authorities. Some viewed it as “legalized murder,” while defenders blamed bootleggers for selling labeled poison for human consumption. Prohibitionists considered the harm to drinkers an acceptable consequence, emphasizing the goal of creating a sober society.