If you paid attention to the news around the mid-2000s, you might have heard the word ethanol in reference to the alternative fuel source made from corn. Today you may see it on fuel pumps that say the gasoline has less than 10 percent ethanol. It’s true that ethanol is a flammable, volatile substance that’s sometimes used for fuel. But it’s also what you are consuming every time you drink an alcoholic beverage.
What is ethanol, and is it different from alcohol? How can I know if someone is abusing ethanol? Learn more about ethanol and how you can spot the signs and symptoms of ethanol use and abuse.
EtOH is an abbreviation for a chemical called ethyl alcohol, or ethanol. Not all chemicals that fall in the alcohol family are the same. In reality, the word alcohol describes any organic compound in which (-OH) is bound to carbon. Alcohols are used for a variety of purposes in chemistry, such as the production of chemicals, fuel, and other products. Most alcohols are unsafe for humans to consume. Even though they have low acute toxicity and small traces won’t kill you. Substantial doses can lead to serious health problems. Ethanol is the only form of alcohol that’s safe to consume, but even that has some potentially harmful effects in high doses.
What we think of as alcohol, as in the active ingredients in a mixed drink, is actually ethanol, which is sometimes called drinking alcohol. Today, the word ethanol is used to describe an alternative fuel source made from corn, but it’s the same chemical that you drink when you drink an alcoholic beverage. However, ethanol fuel is much purer than what you might usually put in your body. And that has to do with how it’s made.
Alcohol is created in a process called fermentation, which happens naturally when a fruit, vegetable, or plant decays and bacteria break down sugars into alcohol. Researchers believe that humans may have developed the ability to metabolize alcohol so that we could digest fermented fruit without getting sick. Then, we liked it so much we started to develop ways to make fermentation happen in a controlled setting. Beer and wine were among the first drinks we produced to create alcohol.
To make these beverages today, people have harnessed the natural fermentation process and made it more efficient. However, beer and wine have a relatively small alcohol content compared to the number of other things like water. Beer is only around 5 percent alcohol while wine is 13 percent. Still, it’s enough to have a significant effect if you drink enough.
However, hard liquor goes through an additional process to increase the amount of ethanol in a single glass. This process is called distillation, and it works by boiling the fermented substance to extract the ethanol. The result is whiskey, vodka, and rum, which can have as much as 40 percent alcohol by volume in it.
Ethanol, like many other psychoactive substances, can be addictive. Drinking ethanol in alcoholic beverages or from products that contain ethanol can be dangerous, especially in excess. Alcoholic drinks are a big part of American culture, and lot’s of people drink. In fact, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2015, 86.4 percent of people over the age of 18 said they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime. That makes alcohol one of the most common recreational drugs in the United States, along with nicotine and caffeine.
So how can you tell if you or someone you know is abusing ethanol? There are a few telltale signs and symptoms.
Alcohol abuse may be considered chronic alcohol use, binge drinking, or heavy drinking. Binge drinking is defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as drinking that brings your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08. This can occur when men consume five drinks, and when women consume four drinks within two hours. Heavy alcohol use is defined as binge drinking five or more times in a month.
There are signs that you or someone you know might be developing an alcohol use disorder that you might be able to notice. Here are some signs and symptoms:
Another important sign that you might have a problem with ethanol is self-medication. Self-medication is when you are not drinking to socialize or even for recreation, but to treat physical or emotional issues. Sometimes alcohol may seem like a good remedy for things like depression and anxiety. If that sounds extreme, think about how many times you’ve heard the phrase, “I need a drink” in response to a stressful or distressing situation. Self-medication is an accepted but dangerous cultural practice. But relying on alcohol to cope with negative emotions, mental health issues, or even physical pain, can worsen your existing problems and lead to new ones like an addiction.
When it comes to the fuel, certain products, and in some moonshine, it’s possible to find extremely high-proof ethanol. That means ethanol that is pure or closer to pure than any typical beverage. What happens if you drink pure ethanol?
Drinking extremely high alcohol content liquor can be potentially dangerous. Pure ethanol is roughly twice as strong as a typical spirit like vodka. So even a small amount will have the effects of a large amount of liquor. However, high proof alcohol, even things like that are close to 100 percent ethanol, is safer than drinking industrial grade ethanol that’s used in fuel and other products. Since pure ethanol fuel is not produced for human consumption, it may contain other harmful chemicals, more specifically, methanol.
Methanol is a chemical that is produced during the distillation process, and it’s also a toxic form of alcohol. When producing drinking alcohol, distillers take special care to keep the methanol content to trace amounts that can be safely consumed. People that make ethanol for fuel and other industrial products don’t have that concern, and the resulting ethanol can contain deadly amounts of methanol.
If you or someone you know is struggling with any kind of substance use disorder that’s related to alcohol, there may be help available to lead you to sobriety. Speak to an addiction treatment specialist by calling California Highlands Vistas, to learn more about addiction treatment and therapy options that might be able to help you get out from under active addiction. Alcoholism is a challenging, chronic disease that can be difficult to manage on your own. However, with the right help, it can be effectively treated. Call any time to take the first steps towards lasting recovery.
Alternative Fuels Data Center. (n.d.). Ethanol. Retrieved from https://afdc.energy.gov/fuels/ethanol.html
DiLoreto, J. T., Siegel, M., Hinchey, D., Valerio, H., Kinzel, K., Lee, S., . . . DeJong, W. (2012, July). Assessment of the average price and ethanol content of alcoholic beverages by brand–United States, 2011. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3349795/
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Drinking Levels Defined. Retrieved from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2018, August). Alcohol Facts and Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-facts-and-statistics