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One of the more familiar chemical compounds on Earth is ethyl alcohol (ethanol). As the intoxicant in alcoholic beverages, ethanol is often simply called alcohol. If ethanol is diluted, as it is in wine, beer, or mixed drinks with about 1 oz of liquor, and if it is consumed in small quantities, it is relatively safe. In excess—four or more drinks in a few hours—it causes intoxication, which is characterized by a loss of coordination, nausea and vomiting, and memory blackouts.
Excessive ingestion of ethanol over a long period of time leads to cirrhosis of the liver, alteration of brain cell function, nerve damage, and strong physiological addiction. Alcoholism—an addiction to ethanol—is the most serious drug problem in the United States. Heavy drinking shortens a person’s life span by contributing to diseases of the liver, the cardiovascular system, and virtually every other organ of the body.
In small quantities—one or two drinks a day—ethanol might promote health. In addition to the possible benefits of modest amounts of ethanol, a chemical in red wines, resveratrol, is thought to lower the risk of heart disease. Resveratrol, found in red grapes, is an antioxidant. It inhibits the oxidation of cholesterol and subsequent clogging of the arteries. One need not drink wine to get the benefits of resveratrol, however. It can be obtained by eating the grapes or drinking red grape juice.
Ethanol and resveratrol, a phenol, are representatives of two of the families of oxygen-containing compounds that we consider in this chapter. Two other classes, aldehydes and ketones, are formed by the oxidation of alcohols. Ethers, another class, are made by the dehydration of alcohols.