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Methanol poisoning investigated as possible cause of tavern deaths

Preliminary toxicology reports are pointing to methanol poisoning as a possible cause of the deaths of 21 young people in the Enyobeni Tavern tragedy, the Eastern Cape government said on today.

Methanol was found in the blood samples from all the deceased, but tests are still being done to determine whether it was at a lethal level, said Dr Litha Matiwane from the Eastern Cape health department. 

“You can ingest it, but it is also a by-product of some other chemicals. We are waiting for those results,” Matiwane said. 

He said the victims’ blood alcohol levels were not fatal, nor were their carbon monoxide levels.

“We are looking for other things like by-products of methanol,” he added, explaining that the gastric contents of the deceased were being analysed to get a better picture of what happened.

Methanol, also known as wood alcohol, can cause a number of debilitating symptoms if ingested, including headache, drowsiness, nausea, vomiting and epigastric pain. It can also cause blindness.

Twenty-one young people – the youngest was 13 – died at the tavern in Scenery Park or at hospital or a nearby clinic in the early hours of 26 June after a “pens down” party at the popular drinking spot to celebrate the end of the exams. 

On Tuesday morning a delegation of senior government officials, including Police Minister Bheki Cele, Eastern Cape premier Oscar Mabuyane and his health MEC, Nomakhosazana Meth, gathered at the Cambridge Police Station in East London to brief the families of the deceased.

The manager of the tavern, Siyakhangela Ndevu (52), was arrested last week to appear in court on charges of contravening the Liquor Act. Two of his employees were given the chance to pay a fine and avoid court. 

The liquor licence for the tavern is in the name of Ndevu’s wife, Vuyokazi.

The tavern was closed down shortly after the incident.

In 2016, the government, in a policy document dealing with dangerous homemade alcohol, highlighted the dangers of homemade brews spiked with methanol.