Death toll from poisoned alcohol rises in Parnu

  • 2001-09-13
  • Kairi Kurm
TALLINN - The seaside town of Parnu in southwestern Estonia is in the grip of a tragedy. As The Baltic Times went to press 43 people had died from drinking methanol spirit.

With 77 more people hospitalized, most of them in a coma, the final toll may be much higher. But, 22 people have recovered and were released from the hospital.

The liquid, which victims took to be illegally distilled alcohol, was sold in plastic soft-drink bottles in Parnu and the surrounding countryside for 30 kroons ($1.76) per liter.

The first victim was found dead at 10 a.m. on Sept. 8., and by 9 p.m. that evening seven more had died and 12 were seriously ill.

The dead were aged 18 and upwards, and several were women.

"The condition of the sick is very serious," said Raido Paasma, head of the intensive care department at Parnu Hospital. "Most of the patients have had to be transported to Tallinn and Tartu hospitals."

Doctors treating the sick said it took 12 hours for symptoms to appear. Lemon flavoring was reported to have been added to the poisoned alcohol.

A team of more than 50 police officers from Parnu began an investigation on Sept. 9. Since then 10 people have been detained in connection with the sale of illegal alcohol. On Sept. 10, a 400 liter store of methanol was found in a farmhouse.

On national TV, viewers saw one woman who had regained consciousness say she had noticed nothing unusual about the alcohol. "Money is more important for the people who sold it than human life," she added.

President Lennart Meri, addressing Parliament on Sept. 10, said the deaths were a legacy of Soviet-era conditions in the countryside.

Indrek Raudjalg, spokesman for the Estonian police department, gave details of the police response: "Police have been working intensively since Sunday and have carried out a number of searches. We have received a lot of anonymous information about possible counterfeit alcohol sales."

A crisis commission was set up Sept. 10. Estonian Interior Minister Tarmo Loodus urged people to pass to police any information they had about counterfeit alcohol sales and to hand in suspicious alcoholic beverages to police.

Unlike ordinary vodka, so-called "wood alcohol" or methanol (CH3OH) has a distinctive smell. An ingredient in paint and wax, as little as 5 grams to 10 grams of the spirit can blind a person, while a 30 gram dose is likely to kill.

The last incident of mass poisoning from methanol in Estonia took place in the 1980s when a group of people broke into a delivery tanker in Kohtla-Jarve. The death toll reached 36.

According to the Estonian Vodka Association, illegal vodka accounts for 35 percent of the total vodka market. The association has repeatedly proposed decreasing the price gap between legal and illegal alcohol so that people can afford legal products.

Excise duty on alcohol is currently 1.7 times higher than that suggested by European Union directives, says the association. Dropping the tax take from the current level of 145 kroons per liter of pure alcohol to 118 kroons - the level at the end of 1998 - would add 150 million kroons to the annual state budget.

The state currently takes 29 kroons from a 50 kroon bottle of vodka - the cheapest on the market. The same quantity costs 25 kroons on the black market.

The association's research shows vodka drinkers to be very price-conscious. "In Narva every second garage has a small alcohol distillery," said Sirje Potissepp of the association. "People drink because they are unoccupied. Increasing the price of alcohol would not prevent alcohol consumption. These problems will only disappear as living standards rise. Then people will find other hobbies."