Bootleg liquor, not water, killed Cambodian villagers

In this Sunday, May 6, 2018, photo provided by Cambodia National Police, patients, who sickened from drinking water, lie on beds at a hospital in Kratie province in northeast of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. A senior Cambodian health official said Monday, May 7, 2018, 14 villagers whose sudden deaths were thought to have been caused by polluted water actually died from drinking rice wine containing methanol. (Cambodia National Police via AP)

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Fourteen villagers whose sudden deaths were thought to have been caused by polluted water actually died from drinking rice wine containing methanol, a Cambodian health official said Monday.

Health Ministry spokesman Ly Sovann said 214 other people from the same area who had fallen ill were sickened by drinking water that was contaminated with human or animal waste or insecticide.

Reports of the deaths and sicknesses that began last Thursday came from two villages in Kratie province in the northeast, and were originally assumed by officials to be a single incident.

Rice wine is typically made in small batches in homes in the countryside and is popular at events such as weddings, funerals and village festivals. Alcohol is sometimes added to boost the drink's potency, but if it is not distilled properly it can contain methanol, which can cause blindness or death even in small amounts.

At least 100 people died last month in Indonesia from drinking tainted bootleg alcohol.

Outbreaks of food and water poisoning are not uncommon in Cambodia, where health checks are rare and safety regulations lax.

The head of the Kratie Provincial Health Department, Chhneang Sivutha, said earlier that the dead and sickened villagers exhibited the same symptoms including breathing problems, dizziness, vomiting and chest pains, and it was suspected that rainwater from nearby farms that use insecticide had flowed into a stream where villagers collect water for drinking and cooking.

A Health Ministry statement on Monday said samples of the wine and the water were collected, and experts from the World Health Organization went to the affected area.

It said sales of homemade rice wine in the area have been banned for now, and people have been ordered not to draw water from the stream believed to be contaminated.

The statement said the dead ranged in age from 24 to 73.

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