Denatured alcohol has been stripped of a fundamental aspect of its nature: potability. Because alcohol has important uses other than simply as a beverage, the practice of denaturing began to set aside certain quantities for these other purposes. These uses are so common, in fact, that it's likely that most adults have encountered denatured alcohol in some form.
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Denatured alcohol is ethyl alcohol, the relatively safe, yet intoxicating, component of liquor, to which toxic and foul-tasting chemicals have been added. Among the most common additives are methanol, acetone and wood naphtha. Denatured alcohol is also sometimes dyed, usually blue, to distinguish it from potable alcohol.
Denatured alcohol has many uses. It is commonly seen in household solvents and disinfectants. Denatured alcohol is also a combustible fuel that produces a flame easily extinguished by water, unlike petroleum- or oil-fed fires. Carpenters use denatured alcohol to help finish sanded surfaces because it captures dust without opening the wood's pores. No form of denatured alcohol is fit for human consumption.
Denatured alcohol is sold commercially in many regular household products, and identifying it in a product may require checking the content label. Nail polish remover, for example, is denatured alcohol used as a solvent, while rubbing alcohol is ethanol denatured by the addition of isopropyl alcohol. The bitter taste of antiseptic mouthwash is due to its denatured alcohol content. Most fuel used in camping stoves is denatured alcohol.
Denaturing alcohol to make it unfit for consumption exempts it from taxes and duties levied on intoxicating beverages such as liquor and beer. This serves to keep the cost of denatured alcohol low, protecting the commercial viability of the products derived from it. The additives chosen to denature alcohol usually make it difficult to separate the drinkable ethyl alcohol through normal means such as distillation, because the boiling points of the components are so close.
Despite cautionary labelling, denatured alcohol is occasionally consumed inadvertently by children or by desperate alcoholics. In addition to nausea and dizziness, the effects of consuming denatured alcohol include blindness and death. Methanol, a common denaturing agent, is broken down by the body into formaldehyde. Ironically, first aid for acute poisoning by denatured alcohol is the consumption of potable liquor, which blocks the metabolic pathways of the denaturing agents until they can be excreted.
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