Tainted rice wine kills 19, leaves 172 ill in Cambodia

PHNOM PENH (AFP) - Rice wine brewed with a toxic level of alcohol has killed at least 19 people and left 172 more hospitalised in northeastern Cambodia, the health ministry said on Sunday (Dec 13).

"Laboratory tests found the deaths were caused by the high methanol level in the wine," Ly Sovann, a spokesman for the health ministry, told AFP.

Local authorities in Kratie province, where residents have been falling ill since November 19 after drinking the tainted alcohol, have ordered all local brewers and rice wine sellers to close temporarily.

Tests carried out by the Ministry of Health have found that some of the wine involved in at least five separate incidents contained up to 12 percent methanol - the usual level is around 0.15 per cent.

Health Minister Mam Bunheng said in a statement released on Sunday (Dec 13) that people should immediately stop drinking rice or herbal wine that had been produced without proper inspection or permits from authorities.

Six of the deaths had been previously announced as being caused by rotten dog meat, but the ministry said further tests had shown that the wine was the cause of the poisoning.

Cambodians often drink locally brewed rice wine, which is relatively inexpensive but can be dangerous if not mixed properly.

Impoverished Cambodia is notorious for lax health and safety standards with cases of mass food poisoning common - although deaths on this scale are rare.