Czech police race to find source of methanol poisoning outbreak

Photo: CTK

The Czech authorities continue to struggle with an outbreak of fatal alcohol poisoning that’s so far claimed the lives of 18 people, apparently from drinking bootleg spirits tainted with the industrial chemical methanol. The government has banned sales of hard alcohol at outdoor kiosks and mobile stands, and says it’s ready to ban spirits outright if the number of deaths continues to rise.

Leoš Heger,  photo: CTK
The Czech health minister Leoš Heger starting the latest televised briefing on the methanol crisis, which shows no signs of abating. Mr Heger told reporters a total of five people had been admitted to hospital with suspected alcohol poisoning in the last 24 hours, from three separate locations around the country. Many more remain in a serious condition; some are in artificially-induced comas as doctors try to save their lives. Few will leave hospital without permanent damage to their health; many people will be blinded for life. The health minister ended his briefing with this appeal to the Czech public.

“I want to repeat the following warning to all our citizens. If you’re hearing this message, if you’re aware what’s going on, then please think hard before consuming alcohol in the days to come. Especially if you normally buy alcohol on the cheaper end of the scale, as the risk there is still acute. If you think you might have ingested methanol, then don’t hesitate to visit your doctor. If you’re feeling unwell for a suspiciously long time after consuming alcohol then again, don’t hesitate and seek medical attention immediately.”

Photo: CTK
Most of the 18 confirmed victims are from towns and cities in the east of the country, mostly in northeast Moravia. Police have asked fire services there to test samples of seized alcohol – of 57 samples tested, 30 contained methanol, an industrial chemical usually found in anti-freeze and fuel.

But the race is still on trace the source of the poisoning, if indeed there is a single source. Police are trying to ascertain whether legitimate, albeit cheap spirits have been illegally diluted with methanol, or whether people have been unwittingly drinking pure methanol bottled with fake labels.

Some victims became ill after ordering over-the-counter spirits at outdoor booths and kiosks; others say they were drinking from bottles of locally-produced rum or vodka bought from shops and market stands. Several victims insist the bottles were correctly stamped and labelled.

Photo: CTK
Veteran anti-alcohol campaigner Dr Karel Nešpor told Radio Prague he had great sympathy for the victims, but warned the media frenzy over the methanol scam was a distraction from a far more serious health problem facing society.

“Of course it is a very unpleasant and painful experience for many people and their families. But a much, much greater number of people are killed not because of methyl alcohol but because of ethyl alcohol, because of so-called high-quality alcoholic beverages.”

Police have arrested two men in North Moravia and seized four hundred litres of bootleg alcohol, in various bottles with fake labels and no tax stamps. Another man has been arrested on suspicion of distributing bootleg spirits. But there seems to be no proven connection with the spate of methanol deaths.

Meanwhile the authorities in neighbouring Poland and Slovakia have also reported fatalities, amidst reports Czech coroners may order autopsies on around 150 people who died recently and who weren’t – at the time - tested for methanol poisoning.