Police are investigating after seven Masiphumelele men died and several other people fell ill from methanol poisoning – it’s suspected they consumed home-brewed alcohol.
According to Dr Wendy Waddington, manager for medical services at False Bay Hospital, five of the men were admitted on Wednesday June 3 with a further 20 people since then – all for methanol poisoning. Some were transferred to Groote Schuur and Victoria hospitals.
South Africans have been experimenting with home-brewed beer since the start of the Covid-19 national lockdown on March 27, which banned the sale of alcohol. The ban has since been lifted.
Allegations on social media that the methanol was given to a man for helping his employer move the contents of a garage and then sold to residents for R50 per 250ml could not be confirmed by the police.
Provincial police spokesman,Colonel Andre Traut, said inquests had been opened, but the cause of the men’s deaths had yet to be determined.
Three of the dead men were Zimbabwean nationals and the others Malawians.
According to Nicodimus Guni, secretary of the Zimbabweans Burial Society in Masiphumelele, a Malawian man brought home a 20-litre bucket filled with a concoction that was mistaken for a consumable beer.
Mr Guni said the man started selling the concoction to his friends, and it was so strong that those who drank it had to dilute it with soft drinks.
Just 24 hours later, the victims were vomiting, sweating and complaining of stomach pains.
Mr Guni said most of the men who had drunk the concoction had died. The burial society is raising funds to repatriate their bodies.
“We have never experienced such a scenario where we have to raise funds for repatriating so many bodies at once,” he said.
Pastor Paul Lafukani, of the Malawi Assemblies of God in Masiphumelele, said he had learnt of the incident when about 12 men had come to his home the following day, asking him to pray for them.
“They told him they were in pain and felt sick after consuming home-made beer but would not say who supplied it.
“I am still investigating the matter and will speak to the men once they have been discharged from hospital.”
He said he was raising money to get the bodies back to Malawi.
Meanwhile Ocean View police spokesman, Sergeant Leon Fortuin, confirmed that methanol poisoning had caused the deaths of Ocean View couple, Winnie, 50, and Malvin Afrikaner, 54. They died at False Bay Hospital on Friday May 15 after drinking a toxic concoction of home-made ginger beer.
Another couple in Port Nolloth, Tony Hillar, 54, and Alida Fouche,42, also died after drinking home-made beer on Saturday May 2.
According to Microbiologist Dr Gerry Norris, home brewing can on occasions be dangerous as bottles can explode when glass bottles are used and while the fermentation process is still taking place. However, it can become even more dangerous when enthusiasts try to distill their brew. What makes it more lethal are congeners produced during distillation. These are substances other than ethanol, which is the type of alcohol brewers seek to produce.
These congeners include small amounts of methanol, acetone, acetaldehyde, esters, tannins, and aldehydes
There have been more than a thousand substances identified while some are poisonous and some even psycho-active.
Methanol, the lightest alcohol, is the first of several alcohols to come off during distillation. It’s known as the “head” and drinking it can kill you.
After methanol comes ethanol (ethyl alcohol), which is known as the “heart” – and this is what the distillers are after – but it is followed by a host of congeners, or “tail”.
Dr Norris said industrial-scale alcohol producers had chemists who used sophisticated gear to monitor the content and quality of the distillate and methanol is usually sold-off to be used in other products not to be consumed by humans..
Dr Norris said adulteration – spiking home-brewed beer with methylated spirits, antifreeze, battery acid and other substances to give it a greater kick – was also extremely dangerous.
Methanol poisoning, he said, could lead to kidney and other organ failures and cause blindness.
“Methanol poisoning is usually an extremely difficult situation to treat medically.”