In the Cambodian countryside, dozens of people have died in recent months after drinking toxic homemade alcohol. In the village of Thnong, Kampot Province, a bad batch consumed at a funeral left a tragedy.
The 50-year-old Prom Vannack rarely spent the day without at least a few glasses of rice wine after being unable to work as a fisherman, especially in a serious motorcycle accident.
So when my uncle Mus (who was also a heavy drinker) died in May, there was no doubt that the funeral would be spent drinking and recollecting with friends and family in the village.
Van Nak started drinking that morning and fell asleep early in the evening. When he woke up the next day, he told his wife that he was sick.
“He said he was so tired that drinking wine made his eyes sleepy,” recalled Hung Peep.
Pheap didn’t think much about it and returned to the second day of the funeral. Van Nak was at home and fell asleep what he thought was a hangover.
But by that night, Vannk began to quiver and vomit violently. Pheap tried to convince her husband to go to a local hospital, but he refused, saying he just needed to rest. The next morning he was dead.
“He opened his mouth to send a message to his mother and children,” Pheap said. “His tears were falling, he died. He could only open his mouth, but couldn’t speak.”
Van Nak was one of eight people who died after drinking at his uncle’s funeral. More than 50 other people were hospitalized. And two people in the village died after drinking from the same batch.
Humvi lost two relatives and was taken to the hospital after drinking a toxic beer. “After drinking, I became dizzy and started vomiting, and my limbs became weak,” he said. “I may have died.”
Mass poisoning was one of three outbreaks in Cambodia in less than a month, killing at least 30 people. Thirteen people died in Prusat in early June, and at least 12 died in Kandal on May 10.
Tests in funeral batches showed that efforts to increase the potency of the drink resulted in deadly levels of methanol. Methanol poisoning is not a new problem in the Cambodian countryside. Homemade alcoholic beer is a popular cheap alternative to over-the-counter beer and spirits at wedding receptions, village festivals and funerals.
“Since the mid-1990s when I started working in Cambodia, the situation has been fairly constant, with a distillery in my house manipulating an unruly still in my house or store and making this homemade rice whiskey my neighbor. It sells to Jonathan Padwe, “said Jonathan Padwe. Anthropologist who worked in that country.
Most villages in Cambodia have at least one (often two or three) of these still images, but no legal control, inspection, or quality control, Padwe said.
Methanol is a type of alcohol commonly used for a variety of industrial purposes, including inks, dyes, and varnish solvents. It is often added to increase the content of alcoholic beverages for profit reasons, especially in low-income countries such as Cambodia, because it is cheaper to manufacture than ethanol, the only type of alcohol that can be safely drunk. High levels of methanol can also be produced by contaminating microorganisms during conventional ethanol fermentation.
Since the recent death toll, Cambodian authorities have tried to show that they are taking the problem seriously. At least 15 rice wine makers and distributors have been arrested, and the Ministry of Health is urging people not to drink contaminated alcohol, according to Cambodian police. In Prusat, authorities have banned the production and sale of rice and herbal wines. The area where Ton Village is located temporarily bans the production, import / export and distribution of rice wine.
But Dr. Knut Eric Hobda, a global expert on methanol poisoning based at the University of Oslo, said education on the dangers of pirated liquor was more important than chasing sellers.
“Of course, if I were the Cambodian government, I wouldn’t let people keep selling that toxic alcohol, but I wouldn’t focus on that either,” Dr. Hobda said. “Rather, I would like to focus on educating people and healthcare providers about how to handle it when it happens. It has been happening for the last 100 to 150 years, It will continue to happen. “
Closing the bootleg brewery will only spawn new breweries, Dr. Hobda said. Instead, he said it was most important to track down the cause of bad alcohol.
He said the Ministry of Health has made some progress in implementing programs to better identify and prevent methanol poisoning, but progress has been hampered by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Ministry of Health refused to comment on the story.
In Thnong village, the atmosphere of the village has not been the same since the day of Muth’s funeral. Many mourn their loss.
Police began asking a woman who had been selling rice wine in the village for decades after locals said she had bought some of the alcohol from her. But she was not arrested.
A woman named only Korap and others in the village believe that the ghosts of the deceased still exist.
“I’m scared of ghosts because so many people died that day and scared me,” she said. “They make a noise in my house and I can’t sleep.”
Hung Peep has the same fear after calling on the local Achar (the general individual who leads the traditional ritual) to rest in a ritual that recites her husband’s spirit. She says she misses her husband, and when she sees young people in the village playing volleyball, she sometimes imagines her husband sitting next to each other.
She welcomed the news that local rice wine sellers were closed, but said it was too few and too late.
“Without my husband, my life is like a kite flying without a rope,” she said. “I’m angry, what can I do?”