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Toxic rice wine kills 7 and injures 130 in Cambodia

Sam Hancock
·2-min read
A Cambodian woman decants rice wine into a water bottle for sale in Phnom Penh (AFP via Getty Images)
A Cambodian woman decants rice wine into a water bottle for sale in Phnom Penh (AFP via Getty Images)

A batch of rice wine, adulterated with a toxic substance, has killed seven people and hospitalised more than 130 others in Cambodia, officials have said.

Residents of a remote rural village in the central Kampong Chhnang province had gathered on Saturday at a funeral when the wine was drunk, according to Cambodia’s Health Ministry.

Officials believe the drink contained high levels of methanol, said ministry spokeswoman Or Vandine, which can be lethal even in small amounts.

Methanol is the simplest form of alcohol and is closely related to ethanol, the type of alcohol normally found in beer, wine and spirits – the difference being that methanol is much more toxic.

“An investigation conducted by a health ministry’s working group found that they had drunk contaminated rice wine during the villager’s funeral,” Ms Vandine told local media on Monday.

She also confirmed around 90 of the “hospitalised patients had recovered and returned home”.

Selling rice wine in the province has been temporarily banned after the incident, she said, while the Health Ministry said in a statement that it had sent three experts to the village on the day of the incident to investigate the situation and make sure sales and consumption of the wine were immediately stopped.

Rice wine is popular in Cambodia’s rural areas because it is cheap to both produce and buy, which residents do on a regular basis despite a number of accidental poisonings being reported each year.

The drink is typically homemade and is popular at social gatherings, although in at least one of the dozens of cases seen over the weekend the tainted wine was a bottled brand made in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, that had been sold in provincial markets for several years without injury.

It becomes toxic when not distilled properly, according to experts. Leigh Schmidtke, a senior lecturer in wine microbiology and production at Charles Sturt University, in Australia, has said before that issues arise from home distillation because the process “concentrates the levels of both ethanol and methanol”.

“There are no really safe ways of differentiating methanol from ethanol at home,” Mr Schmidtke told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

He said commercial alcohol is known to be safe because unlike home distillers, manufacturers use technologies specifically designed to ensure methanol is separated properly from ethanol – leaving the alcohol safe to drink.

In one of Cambodia’s worst incidents involving methanol-laced toxic wine, 14 villagers died and more than 200 others were left seriously ill in the northeastern province of Kratie in May 2018.

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