The prohibition era had a deep impact on American society when it came to public perception of alcohol and alcohol addiction. Starting as a grassroots movement begun by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the push for prohibition saw the creation of thousands of flyers, slogans, and statistics. Many people supported an end to legal liquor because they saw it as the cause of poor public health, domestic violence, and political corruption around the turn of the century.
However, the campaigning led to the inception of some far-fetched folk wisdom. Alcohol was equated to being anti-family, against the troops and veterans, and pro-corruption. People even proclaimed statistics that children of beer drinkers were more likely to die in the first five years of life.
Alcohol was also assigned a host of adverse effects, some legitimate and some not. One 1904 report implicated “wood alcohol” as the cause for “a list of” deaths and blindness. However, is the familiar adage, “don’t drink too much or you’ll go blind,” a product of propaganda or does it hold water? There are some cases of blindness after drinking alcohol, even today. But what kind of alcohol can put your lights out and how much does it take?
Prohibition and Bootlegging
Today, despite legal restriction, opioid abuse, addiction, and overdose are at an all-time high. Likewise, the Prohibition between 1920 and 1933 didn’t stop people from drinking alcohol. Instead, wealthy individuals stocked up on spirits while it was still legal and some kept large enough supplies to get them through the 13 years with all the sauce they could want. Even the presidents at the time, Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding, kept large stashes in the White House.
Tensions mounted between working class people and their bosses.
Illegal alcohol trafficking and selling grew as a black market industry and bootlegging became more common. Working class people would find back alley routes to booze. In fact, the government had over 7,000 cases of violations in the first six months of 1920. Bootleg alcohol was made in clandestine backroom breweries and makeshift home stills. Unfortunately, the crooked hooch wasn’t always distilled in the safest ways, which led to some extra adverse effects, including blindness.
The Rise of Moonshine
While alcohol on its own doesn’t cause blindness, some forms of moonshine can cause temporary or permanent blindness. Moonshine is a broad term that refers to high-proof distilled spirits that are produced illegally. It remained illegal to sell moonshine up until 2010 when it was redefined as clear, unaged, corn mash whiskey. However, during the Prohibition, moonshine grew in popularity, particularly in the hills of Appalachia. Immigrants from Ireland and Scotland settled in the Appalachian mountains and brought over a whiskey distilling practice that produced strong whiskey that they didn’t age.
Lower class Americans that were hurting for the hard stuff in the 1920s embraced the process that didn’t require a year or more of aging, so the moonshining spread. In fact, it came to bolster the economy of the region where it was difficult to trade crops because of a subpar network of mountain roads. Blackmarket whiskey was a lot more valuable in small, easy to transport packages than corn or other crops.
With moonshine whiskey growing as a cash crop and an entire country of working-class people looking for liquor, intrepid moonshiners started building stills and producing corn mash contraband as fast as they could.
The distillation process is relatively simple, and there isn’t much deviation from the recipe. Corn mash is boiled in a metal chamber, and the fumes make their way through a pipe into another chamber full of cold water. The heated vapors are quickly cooled which causes condensation that’s collected in a container, and that’s moonshine.
So if the process is simple and creates alcohol that does not inherently carry blindness as a risk, where does the side effect come from? The risk of blindness comes from unintended additives resulting from poorly constructed stills. During Prohibition, some would build stills out of repurposed parts. Repurposed automotive radiators were popular to use as condensers (the part of the pipe used for cooling and condensation). They were already designed to take the heat and cool down engines, why not fermentation fumes?
However, old radiators were often contaminated with antifreeze or even lead. At the end of the process, the collected alcohol would be contaminated with dangerous chemicals that, when ingested, can cause blindness.
Making Methanol Moonshine
In some cases, ethanol (drinking alcohol) isn’t the only chemical produced in the distillation process. During distillation, certain substances are extracted from the fermented mash through the boiling process. Different substances have different boiling points and ethanol’s is comparatively low, so it is extracted early and the rest is left behind. This produces higher proof alcohol than simple fermentation as with beer or wine. However, fermentation also produces another chemical in the alcohol family called methanol, which is toxic. However, normal fermentation doesn’t produce it in high amounts.
Methanol has a higher boiling point than ethanol, so it takes longer for it to turn into gas and make its way through the still. However, caustic moonshiners, looking to make their product a little more potent, might throw out the first drops of ethanol and wait for methanol to come tumbling out of the tube. Distilled and collected concentrated methanol can be present in moonshine in significant amounts that can cause damage to the optic nerve, leading to… you guessed it, blindness.
What is Perceptual Blindness?
General alcohol abuse can cause a type of blindness, albeit, not the kind that actually ruins your vision but, rather, your perception. Inattentional blindness, or perceptual blindness, is a psychological symptom that causes a lapse in attention. In other words, inattentional blindness is the failure to notice something that’s clear and in your field of vision. This happens commonly and you may have experienced it at some level once or twice in your life.
For instance, you may be looking for nutmeg in the spice section of your supermarket but unable to find it despite the fact that it’s in front of you the whole time. The overwhelming amount of stimuli in all the different types of spices may have caused an episode of perceptual blindness.
Studies show that alcohol has the effect of worsening your likelihood of experiencing inattentional blindness. This is one of the effects of alcohol that makes driving under the influence so dangerous. If you don’t notice a car in the lane next to you while you merge, alcohol-induced “blindness” will have caused an accident.
Help for Alcohol Abuse
If you or a loved one struggles with alcohol abuse, treatment is available that can lead to lasting recovery. Don’t be blind to the disease of alcoholism in your own life. Call Arete Detox today at 844-318-7500 or contact us online to learn more.