Lethal brew

/ 05:07 AM January 04, 2020

An incident that caused an appalling number of deaths in Luzon has been largely overshadowed by the devastation wrought by Typhoon “Urusula” in the Visayas over the holidays: 23 dead due to methanol poisoning from drinking “lambanog” or palm liquor, a local alcoholic drink made from fermented and distilled coconut sap.

The mass poisoning broke out in Rizal, Laguna, on Dec. 22, according to the Department of Health (DOH). The latest victim died on Dec. 26 in Quezon province, which has since suspended the sale of the liquor. The two provinces, among the country’s top producers of coconut, the main ingredient of lambanog, were the hardest hit by the tragedy. Per DOH, the fatalities were from Rizal (7) and Nagcarlan (2) in Laguna, and Candelaria (8), Lucena City (2), Pagbilao (3) and Padre Burgos (1) in Quezon.


The culprit, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), was a “toxic” concentration of methanol, a poisonous chemical, mixed into the homegrown wine. The actual causes of death differed based on the medical histories of the victims; the toxic substance triggered blood pressure to shoot up in some, while others died of organ failure. Among the symptoms of methanol poisoning are headache, vomiting, abdominal pain, hyperventilation and difficulty of breathing; it can even cause blindness. The body can only tolerate 0.5 percent of methanol.

The FDA warned that the toxic liquor could easily be mistaken for water since unregulated makers place them in ordinary water bottles, mixing in the toxic substance to cut on production costs. Many would buy these because they are cheaper, by at least P100, compared to those sold by licensed producers. Tragically, this menace wallops mostly poor people, who are forced to buy substandard, unregulated homegrown brews because that is all they can afford for their simple celebrations and moments of merriment.Last year at about the same time, at least 12 lambanog-related deaths were reported in Bulacan, Quezon City and Laguna. An FDA investigation showed that the victims consumed lambanog bought from local stores, and later traced the source to Candelaria town in Quezon. It found high levels of methanol in the lambanog samples.


But the methanol poisoning apparently has not been limited to lambanog. In July last year, another death was reported in Quezon City after the victim drank a locally manufactured gin already being sold even if the FDA had yet to approve its product registration. Samples of the product submitted to authorities showed a high level of methanol content. The FDA explained that while methanol is a product of natural fermentation and could be found in alcoholic and nonalcoholic fermented beverages, higher concentrations of the substance in alcoholic drinks can happen only when it is added deliberately.

Following the recent deaths, the FDA has advised the public to check whether the alcoholic drinks they buy and consume have been registered and approved, with proper labels including their ingredients, the alcohol content, and place and date they were manufactured.

The recurring incidents, however, underscore the need for stricter regulation on the production and sale of locally produced alcoholic drinks, especially since this has become one of the country’s growing industries and has started exporting to foreign markets like the United States, Asia and Europe. Because of the latest incident, manufacturers in Quezon said they expected to lose at least 80 percent of their projected earnings in December—a peak season for the business with more holiday parties and gatherings. Joselito Mallari, who owns a distillery in Tayabas City, has called it an “annual sabotage” that has affected the business of registered distillers. The poisoning cases last year, he recalled, had authorities promising to investigate and punish the culprits. “But if they really did, why a repeat of the incidents? Based on recent news reports, the same toxic methanol from fake lambanog is again [blamed for the latest deaths].”

Local authorities also need to educate the public, particularly those who consume these products, of the safety issues involved. Aside from being sold in plastic water bottles, many retailers in the provinces also sell the alcoholic drink out of huge plastic drums. “It’s cheaper,” said Mallari. “But why gamble with your health and life?”

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TAGS: Department of Health, Food and Drug Administration, lambanog, methanol poisoning, Typhoon “Urusula”
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