Nial Wheate: Serious dangers lurking in powdered alcohol

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Snorted alcohol has the potential to deliver alcohol [directly] to the brain. Opening a bottle and pouring liquid into a glass isn't exactly an arduous task but a United States company hopes to release a powdered variety to make consuming alcohol that little bit easier - and more portable.

Last month, Palcohol gained regulatory approval to market powdered alcohol in the US. The approval was subsequently rescinded because of a labelling discrepancy, but the company has corrected the labels and reapplied, hoping the product will be on the market by September.

The product is clearly targeted towards the alcopops market. But there are a number of dangers that need to be considered before such a product is made available in Australia and New Zealand.

What is powdered alcohol?

Drinking alcohol, or ethanol, is a highly volatile compound that boils at around 78C. As such, in its natural state it's impossible to produce in a powdered form but can be made using host-guest chemistry and a method is described in several patents from the 1970s.

It's not clear what method Palcohol uses, but it's likely to trap the alcohol inside a circular molecule called a cyclodextrin.

Cyclodextrins have a shape similar to an icecream cone where the bottom half has been bitten off. The cavity inside the cyclodextrin is perfect for storing small molecules.

Cyclodextrins are used routinely in medical products and in household items such as the odour-reducing spray Febreeze. In the past, my research group has even examined cyclodextrins as potential delivery vehicles for anticancer drugs. When the alcohol is trapped in the cyclodextrin, it doesn't evaporate and together, they can be turned into a stable powder.

Misuse

The product could be used in a number of ways other than the intended just-add-water preparation, such as snorting the dry powder into the nose.

Many compounds can be absorbed into the body from Nasal tissue, such as antihistamine sprays to treat hay fever. Snorted alcohol has the potential to deliver alcohol to the brain without it needing to go into systemic circulation in the bloodstream.

One way for the company to address the misuse of its product in this way could be the inclusion of a bulking agent so that, gram for gram, each packet contains significantly less alcohol.

Overindulgence

The effects of alcohol and the damage it does to the body are well known. Despite years of advertising, education and the standard drinks guide, however, many adults are unaware of how much alcohol is in different types of drinks.

Given the ease with which powdered alcohol can be consumed compared with normal drinking volumes, consumerscan very quickly ingest risky levels of alcohol.

From the patents, the powdered alcohols contain anywhere between 30 to 60 per cent ethanol. A 50-gram packet could contain as much as 30 grams of ethanol; that's almost twice the alcohol content in a stubby or can of beer.

It would be possible for powdered alcohol to be adulterated if bought over the internet. Such sellers might add prescription drugs or other unlisted ingredients to give their product an extra kick.

Taking these potential dangers into consideration, the approval of any form of powdered alcohol in Australia and New Zealand needs to be considered very carefully.

theconversation.edu.au

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