Along the tree-lined streets of Dangkao district in the western outskirts of Phnom Penh, villagers have posted effigies outside their homes to keep out death and disaster. But dummies dressed in old poloneck shirts and Marlboro baseball caps did not get the job done in villages like Trapeang Tea, where, within a week, six people died after drinking tainted rice wine.
Trapeang Tea, in Trapeang Krasang commune, is one of the epicenters of a disaster that first hit Dangkau on Tuesday but has spread to Kandal’s Ang Snuol district and Phnom Penh’s Chamkar Mon district this weekend. As of Sunday afternoon, as many as 36 people had died, posing tough questions to authorities and fueling confusion and speculation in the affected areas.
Health officials had initially pointed to insecticides—often added by retailers to increase the wine’s potency—as a likely cause of the deaths. But Mom Bun Heng, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Health, said Sunday that laboratory tests, conducted at Phnom Penh’s Calmette Hospital, showed the wine contained overdoses of methanol—a toxic liquid often used as antifreeze, fuel or a general solvent.
It was less clear at what stage in the retailing process the wine had turned into a lethal mix. Mom Ky, chief of the municipal hygiene and epidemiology department, said a task force, comprised of members of the economic and penal police as well as health officials and prosecutors, had started tracking down suspects.
On Sunday morning, the task force confiscated 36 containers of rice wine and herbal medicine at a wholesaler in Tuol Svay Prey II commune in Phnom Penh, Mom Ky said. They then followed the wine trail back to a manufacturer in Chak Angre Krom commune south of the capital where they were told the product had been made by another company in the Prek Pra area in Kandal province. No arrests were made.
Tracking down perpetrators in the wine business is no easy task since various vendors, wholesalers and manufacturers may all have contributed to the final mix.
“There are all these different stages in the process,” said Daniel Perez, a municipal health adviser from the World Health Organization. “We know that street vendors add insecticide to the wine. But the interesting question is what other people did to the wine before that.”
There was even more confusion in the villages where rumors and superstitions carry as much weight as the pronouncements of health officials. Many villagers pointed out on Friday that victims had been drinking the wine for all of their lives; some offered their own theories about what had brought about the deaths.
Sim On, a 55-year-old farmer in Trapeang Tea, had a glass of rice wine on Wednesday at 9 am. “He complained about a headache and that he felt paralyzed,” said his son, Im Saroeurn, “but he didn’t die until 17 hours later.”
The death surprised Im Saroeurn because his father was a regular drinker. Relatives refused to attend the funeral, he said, “because they are scared of getting infected.” Im Saroeurn, too, had posted an effigy in front of his gate to “scare away evil. Everyone here does it.”
In Chenh Menh village, about a kilometer north of Trapaing Tea, 80-year-old Men Chhiv gulped down a glass of rice wine to show the drink could not have caused the deaths. Yang Chanphally, a 41-year-old farmer in the same village, agreed with Men Chhiv, suggesting cholera or climate changes were responsible.
Still others blamed the CPP. At Chumpou Vorn market, along the road back from the village to Pochentong Airport and Phnom Penh, a middle-aged vendor handed reporters a packet of monosodium glutamate, given to her by the ruling party during the election campaign. “We suspect that the people died after eating MSG,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We asked the Ministry of Health to investigate. But we haven’t heard back.”
No rice wine was to be found at Chumpou Vorn market on Friday. Dangkao police officials said they had confiscated 22 plastic containers there.
Sitting outside his police office on Friday morning, Chuop Sok Heng, the Dangkao police deputy inspector, said he was still investigating whether it was the wine that caused the deaths. “My people drank a little bit of the wine and nothing happened,” he said.
As Chuop Sok Heng spoke, an ambulance raced past on the road towards central Phnom Penh. “Another one,” he said, adding that the car was probably headed for Calmette Hospital.
Forty-seven patients were being treated at Calmette on Friday afternoon and additional rice-wine victims kept arriving. On Sunday, the number of people hospitalized had risen to 82, said Suos Salon, deputy director of the municipal health department, and hospital beds were becoming scarce at Calmette. Symptoms included sweating, nausea and blurred vision.
Suos Salon said the disaster happened because villagers believe in spirits and do not understand it’s the wine that makes them sick. “They’ve been drinking the wine for decades,” he said, “and now they keep drinking and they have problems.”