The number of people who have died this week from drinking contaminated rice wine in Phnom Penh’s Dangkao district has risen to 23, forcing authorities to confiscate wine sold by vendors in the area, police officials said Friday.
“We have ordered our people to remove the wine and to tell the people not to drink it anymore,” said Chuop Sok Heng, deputy inspector of Dangkao district police. He added that investigations have not shown exactly what substance caused the deaths.
Mom Ki, chief of the municipal hygiene and epidemiology department, said the results of laboratory tests were not in yet but the most likely cause was insecticide, often added by retailers and drinkers to increase the effect of the alcohol. Yet other health officials suspected the wine had been tainted with methyl alcohol, not with pesticides.
Chuop Sok Heng said police were searching for the perpetrators but could not yet determine at what stage in the retailing process the wine had been tainted. A local wine seller told police officials he had bought the wine from wholesalers in the Boeng Salang and Kirirom communes of Phnom Penh, according to Chuop Sok Heng.
Meanwhile, the rice wine disaster has taken an emotional toll in the villages and communes that have been affected most. So many people have died in Dangkao within the last few days that officials have asked families of the dead not to play traditional funeral music for fear of upsetting other residents and possibly frightening them to death, said Men Mon, the district’s deputy governor.
And yet, the worst seemed far from over Friday. Ambulances were shuttling between the affected areas and the center of Phnom Penh, rushing more people who had been drinking the rice wine to hospitals. Many of them were suffering from dizziness and fatigue.
At Calmette Hospital alone, 47 patients were being treated late Friday afternoon while additional rice-wine victims kept arriving.
(Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse)