Thirteen people died and dozens more were hospitalized after drinking methanol-tainted rice wine during a series of funerals in a Kompong Chhnang provincial commune over the past month, officials said on Thursday.
Rice wine refineries in the area were closed, and a wine producer was arrested after testing revealed that the wine he supplied to the grieving families had been made of 25 percent methanol, officials said.
“I think tomorrow maybe more victims will be confirmed,” said Sorin Tiravuthy, director of the provincial referral hospital, where many of the victims had been admitted with symptoms of poisoning.
Between Wednesday and Thursday, 62 people from Kraing Skear commune in Toek Phos district were admitted to the provincial hospital, and five of the most seriously ill were transferred to Calmette Hospital in Phnom Penh, where two died on Thursday, Mr. Tiravuthy said.
“Their symptoms were too similar, like vomiting, nausea, shortness of breath and blurred vision,” he said.
“We suspected they experienced wine poisoning after the last victim died at our hospital,” Mr. Tiravuthy said. “Then we ordered our officials to investigate and found that nine others who had also been drinking wine had died in the commune.”
Toek Phos district governor Meng Hak said the problems began on November 3, when a family served rice wine at a funeral for a 79-year-old relative. Villagers began to complain about persistent stomach pains, and deaths slowly mounted as the same wine continued to be served at subsequent funerals.
“I saw villagers becoming ill since early last month, and some died later, but no one thought that they were poisoned by something,” commune chief Kong Sam Em said. “When the people began dying one by one after the funerals, they continued to enjoy drinking.”
“Now, all the rice wine refineries have been temporarily closed by the police for investigation,” Mr. Em said.
A wine producer from the commune was arrested on Thursday afternoon by district police and brought in for questioning, according to deputy provincial police chief Ly Vireak.
He said officials had determined that the producer’s wine, which was served at the funerals, was made up of 25 percent methanol. Methanol is a colorless but toxic liquid typically used as fuel or antifreeze in automobiles.
Methanol poisoning has been recurring in Cambodia and across the region, with investigations often leading to unscrupulous, large-scale producers who had mixed in the chemical in order to increase their wine’s alcohol content.
Mr. Vireak did not explain how the suspect had been identified, but said he would be held overnight at the district police station before being transferred to the provincial police headquarters today for further questioning. He referred further questions to district police. District police chief Khem Vibol declined to comment.
Separate testing of a wine sample is being conducted by officials from the Health Ministry and the Commerce Ministry’s Cambodia import-export inspection and fraud repression directorate general, but “the result hasn’t been issued yet,” said Dr. Tiravuthy of the provincial referral hospital.
Last December, Prime Minister Hun Sen urged citizens to be more careful with what they ingest after 18 people in Kratie province died over the course of a week from methanol poisoning, and rice wine production in Kratie province was temporarily banned.