Moonshine laced with toxic methanol killed 143 people and sickened dozens more in eastern India, officials said Thursday. Police arrested 10 suspected bootleggers whose illegal brew was being hawked at tiny stores across the West Bengal state.

View Photo Gallery: The cheap, illegal liquor contained toxic methanol. Police have arrested 10 suspected bootleggers and demolished 10 illicit liquor shops.

The Associated Press reports that thousands of anguished relatives gathered outside the packed hospital in the town of Diamond Harbor, near Kolkata, where the dead bodies of their family members lay inside. Groups of sickened men sat with saline drips in their arms.

The sale of illegal liquor has been an ongoing problem in the slums of urban India and among the rural poor, who can’t afford the price of state-sanctioned alcohol. Highly toxic methanol, which is usually used as fuel, solvent or antifreeze, can induce comas, cause blindness or death if consumed in high doses. In years past, moonshine consumption has killed hundreds in India. But rarely has the brew left so many dead at one blow.

Four years ago, the government tried to crack down on illegal alcohol by outlawing “arrack,” a country liquor made from fermented fruit juices. But the sale of moonshine, which is different than arrack and often is mixed with toxic methanol, has lived on.

The Lancet medical journal reports that two-thirds of the alcohol consumed India is illegal liquor made in remote villages or undocumented liquor smuggled in.

It is estimated that one or two people across India die from tainted liquor every week.

But some months are much worse than others, including in May 2008, when moonshine killed 110 in Bangalore, in July 2009, when 86 people died in Ahmadabad, and in September 2010, when at least 19 people died in India’s southern state of Kerala.

This time, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee says there will be a crackdown on moonshine, at least in her state.

“I want to take strong action against those manufacturing and selling illegal liquor,” she said, according to Press Trust of India. “But this is a social problem also, and this has to be dealt with socially also along with action.”

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