Nineteen people have died in Phnom Penh this week from drinking locally-brewed rice wine believed to have been laced with an insecticide, an official said Thursday.
As many as a dozen others were hospitalized but were expected to recover.
Officials were moving to confiscate the suspected tainted batches and conduct laboratory tests to confirm their suspicions.
“As people come back from farming, they usually drink a little wine to relieve their pain from their hard work. After drinking the wine, some could not wake up,” said Men Mon, deputy governor of Dangkao district, where the deaths occurred.
“Now, we advise people to refrain from drinking wine, and we order vendors to quit selling the wine,” he said.
It is a Southeast Asian tradition to add insecticide to local brews in the mistaken belief it increases the wine’s potency or alcoholic content, said Daniel Perez, a municipal health adviser from the World Health Organization.
Instead, while victims think they are getting drunk faster, they actually are poisoning their body, he said.
Dizziness and sweating are two symptoms of poisoning, and in extreme cases death can occur within hours from respiratory failure, he said.
In 1996, about the time of Khmer New Year, more than a dozen people in Phnom Penh and at least seven in Sihanoukville died from drinking tainted wine. The local wine also is often made with herbs and tree bark.
Men Mon and Daniel Perez both said they suspected this batch of wine included pesticide. But Men Mon and Suos Salon, deputy director of the municipal health department, emphasized Thursday that laboratory tests weren’t complete. Methanol also is occasionally used to spike wine.
The exact circumstances of the deaths were unclear, including whether the victims were part of large drinking groups.
Men Mon said 14 have died this week in Trapeang Krasang commune, four in Chaom Chau and one in Samraong Krom in Dangkao district on the western outskirts of Phnom Penh.
Some residents near the city’s military airport shot bullets in the sky Wednesday night in efforts to ward off what they thought was a disease plaguing their commune, a police official said Thursday. Besides the deaths from the tainted wine, at least two people in Dangkao district have died this week from dengue fever, Men Mon said.
While laboratory tests should be able to confirm whether the wine was tainted by insecticide and in what quantity, it won’t answer immediately the question of how it was tainted.
For example, officials said too much insecticide could have been mixed in the initial batch, or a wholesaler or local reseller may have added more later under the mistaken assumption that there was none in the original batch.
After the tragedy in 1996, municipal health officials were advised to take measures to prevent it from reoccurring, but Perez indicated that little has been done to break Cambodia of its dangerous tradition.
“I’ve been surprised that it hasn’t occurred since,” he said Thursday night.
(Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith and Deutsche Presse-Agentur)