Growing concern over public safety as police investigate bootleg liquor deaths

Photo: CTK

The Czech Republic is in the grip of a methanol scare after 11 people suffered acute methanol poisoning from bootleg alcohol. As the number of fatalities rises police around the country are trying to trace the source of the contaminated liquor and issuing urgent warnings to the public.

Photo: CTK
Police are out in force in the Moravian town of Havirov making sure the methadone warning reaches those who need to hear it most –homeless people and those out on the street likely to buy cheap bootleg alcohol. Three of the seven people who bought cheap brandy on tap at a stall in Havirov last week are dead, three others are in a coma on life support, another has gone blind. All suffered acute methanol poisoning which is known to have fatal consequences. The town hall’s spokeswoman Ewa Vojnarova says they are dealing with an emergency situation.

“The situation is grave and there is considerable danger to citizens’ life and health. The police have closed down five stalls which sold bootleg liquor and are now trying to trace the source of the contaminated batch.”

Photo: CTK
The owner of one of the stalls has been charged with causing grievous bodily harm resulting in death and is in custody awaiting trial but he does not appear to have produced the home-made brandy and it is still not clear how much of it was put on the market or where it may surface. Over the weekend two other cases appeared in the towns of Znojmo and Kyjov, both located in south Moravia at a considerable distance from Havirov. Although one of the men is employed in Havirov and admitted to having consumed cheap brandy bought in the street, the other had no apparent connection to the place. He had consumed alcohol at a local disco and pub the previous night. With the source of the contaminated alcohol unclear the mayors of Kyov, Znojmo and nearby towns are holding crisis meetings with doctors and police to consult preventive measures and an effective information campaign.

Monday morning confirmed the worst fears – an acute case of methanol poisoning was reported in Pribram, central Bohemia. A sixty-five year old man is in critical condition and has gone blind after drinking seven shots of vodka bought at a local store.

Vladimir Steiner from the Czech Association of Spirit Producers and Importers says that while 15 to 20 percent of the liquor consumed in the Czech Republic annually is home made this particular batch is something entirely different.

“In my view this is a criminal offense. The health problems we are seeing could not have been caused by home-made brandy which often contains small traces of methadone that could make people sick but would not be fatal. If you ask me I think that someone producing bootleg alcohol had access to the methadone that is imported to the Czech Republic for industrial use. It comes at half the price of ethanol and I think someone intentionally substituted it looking to make a quick fortune and knowing that by its colour, taste and smell it is indistinguishable from ethanol.”

With the methanol threat now nationwide, police are out in force around the country checking out street stalls and small mixed goods stores that sell cheap liquor. The Health Ministry is sending out inspectors restaurants, canteens and eateries around the country. People are repeatedly being warned not to consume unlabelled alcohol or order spirits on tap. Although the shocking reports on the case have now made most people highly cautious about what they consume, the police fear that those who are at real risk of buying cheap bootleg liquor are not likely to be listening.