Methanol found in 21 teenagers who died in a bar in South Africa

Methanol was found in the blood of the 21 teenagers who died last month at a bar in the South African city of East London, according to a health official. Methanol – often called wood alcohol – is a toxic chemical and if ingested, even small amounts can be fatal. Here is an overview of what is known.

What happened in South Africa?

The teenagers died at the Enyobeni Tavern in East London’s Scenery Park township in the early hours of June 26, shocking the country and prompting several investigations by police and liquor licensing authorities. Many teenagers, ages 13 to 17, were found dead in the tavern, their bodies slumped on tables and sofas and slumped on the dance floor, officials said. Final toxicology reports will show whether the methanol levels were lethal and South African police will determine whether anyone will face criminal charges for the 21 deaths, National Police Minister Bheki Cele said.

Why is methanol so toxic?

Methanol is a colorless liquid used industrially in antifreeze and strippers. It is toxic to humans. Public health expert Professor Sue Goldstein, from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, has warned that ingesting even small amounts of methanol can be deadly. Methanol is sometimes used in the manufacture of illicit alcohol, she said.

“The one used in normal liquor is ethanol. There is a slight difference in name, but the difference is huge in that methanol is a poison.

“These are the early stages, but we don’t know if there was possibly homemade alcohol and the levels of methanol that were found in deceased people,” Goldstein said. Methanol can cause blindness and cause brain and organ damage. According to experts, drinking even small amounts can lead to death. The toxic effects of methanol are often delayed, so if poisoning is identified early, an antidote can be given to reduce fatalities.

Is methanol responsible for other deaths?

Yes. Because methanol is cheap, it has been used in the manufacture of illegal alcoholic beverages, sometimes called moonshine. Other incidents of suspected methanol poisoning in South Africa occurred in May and June 2020 during the COVID-19 lockdown, when alcohol sales were banned. Police have reported that a man died in the small town of Brakpan, in the far east of Johannesburg, from organ failure caused by homemade alcohol purchased from an illegal trafficker. Seven people have died in the Western Cape province after consuming homemade alcohol containing methanol, police said.

What about other countries?

Epidemics of methanol poisoning have occurred around the world. Even though methanol use can easily be fatal, it accounts for less than 1% of all alcohol-related deaths, according to the World Health Organization. The medical charity Doctors Without Borders set up a Special Methanol Poisoning Initiative in 2012 to help create effective responses to outbreaks of methanol poisoning and to make an effective antidote more widely available.

Are there other incidents in which methanol has caused multiple deaths?

In Iran, in March 2020, methanol was included in an illegal cure for COVID-19, resulting in the deaths of nearly 300 people, according to official reports. An Iranian doctor assisting the country’s health ministry told The Associated Press at the time that the problem was even more serious, with an estimated 480 dead and 2,850 sick. Fake cures spread on social media in Iran, where people deeply mistrusted the government after it downplayed the COVID-19 crisis before the disease overwhelmed the country.

In the United States, four people died in Arizona and New Mexico in August 2020 after drinking hand sanitizer containing methanol. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration previously issued a warning about hand sanitizer gel made in Mexico that was unsafe because it contained high amounts of methanol. The FDA said methanol “may be toxic when absorbed through the skin or ingested.”

In northern India, 79 people died from smuggled alcohol in three separate incidents in February 2019. Autopsies revealed the alcohol contained methanol.

In the Russian city of Irkutsk, at least 49 people died after drinking counterfeit bath lotion containing methanol in December 2016. Authorities found the lotion contained lethal levels of methanol and antifreeze. Police found an underground facility that made the counterfeit lotion and seized 132 gallons of it from around 100 stores in Irkutsk, according to the Tass news agency. Poisonings from cheap surrogate alcohol are common in Russia, but the Irkutsk case was much bigger, authorities said at the time.

About James K. Bonnette

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