TALLINN - Five people have died from methanol poisoning after drinking lighter fluid, a substance consumed by many Estonians seeking a cheap alcoholic substitute. Four of the drinkers, aged between 30 and 56, were found dead in the northern town of Loksa, while a fifth man, 57, died in Tartu.
The spate of deaths sparked memories of the horrific home-brew poisoning epidemic five years ago, in which almost 70 people died in southern Estonia after drinking toxic moonshine.
However, police said there were no indications that homebrew was to blame. While autopsies have not been completed, police said they believe all five drinkers had consumed lighter fluid prior to their deaths.
The Ministry of Social Affairs said it conducted door-to-door visits in Loksa to inform residents of the dangers of drinking such substances.
Mart Soonik, head of the ministry's public relations department, said producers of fire-lighting products would be more closely scrutinized.
The Health Protection Inspectorate will check the labels and content of the product to ensure they were correct, he said.
"These people were normal social people. They drank more than normal, but they weren't living under a tree," Soonik said. "We hope very much that people will hear the news reports so they know that you don't drink liquids you don't know about."
The deaths coincided with the release of a report on alcoholism in Estonia, which found that alcoholics resort to aftershave, illegal spirits and fire-lighting fluid as alcohol substitutes.
The study was based on interviews with alcoholics at a soup kitchen in Tartu.
The author of the report, Professor Martin McKee of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said he was saddened by the recent deaths.
"Our research shows that a number of alcohol-containing substances not meant for drinking are still being consumed in Estonia," Professor McKee told The Baltic Times. "Although we were unable to look at how many people are drinking them, it was clear from their ease of availability that the numbers concerned are not trivial."
He added that similar substances were drunk throughout the former Soviet period.
"There is some evidence that the production of the more commercial varieties, in particular aftershaves, increased considerably in the 1990s," McKee said. "Our research in Russia indicates that about one in twelve working age men drinks them, and that they have played a very important role in the high death rate in this age group."
He said police could take a much stricter view on enforcing laws related to illegal home-brews.
In many western countries, alcohol is not sold as a fire-starting fluid and fire-starters are made from paraffin wax blocks. McKee said perfumes and aftershaves could be taxed to ensure they were not cheaper than alcohol.
"But if the Estonian government rejects this, those items sold will have chemicals that cause anyone drinking them to vomit. This would not affect their function as perfumes."