Traces of methanol — a colorless and highly toxic liquid — were detected in the bodies of all 21 teenagers who were found dead at a South African nightclub last month, as an investigation continues into the cause of the mysterious deaths that stunned the community.
Litha Matiwane, the Eastern Cape provincial deputy director for clinical service, said initial tests ruled out alcohol and carbon monoxide poisoning as possible causes of death and that officials were awaiting more conclusive results from a laboratory in Cape Town.
The victims, who were between the ages of 13 and 17, were found slumped over tables and chairs inside the Enyobeni Tavern in the coastal city of East London on June 26. Initial reports suggested a stampede may have been to blame, although officials later said they believed the victims had inhaled or ingested a toxic substance. No obvious signs of injury were present.
The deaths sparked debate throughout the country over underage drinking at taverns in South Africa’s Black townships, which are plagued by poverty, high unemployment and a lack of basic services in a legacy of apartheid. The legal drinking age in South Africa is 18.
Yonela Dekeda, a spokeswoman for the Eastern Cape Health Department, told The Washington Post that the initial test results were “not conclusive.”
“There are more tests that are being done to identify exactly what the cause of death was,” she said. “We can’t say at this stage where they got the methanol, whether it was through liquor or something else. That is still unknown.”
Carine Marks, Director of the Tygerberg Poison Information Center which advises heath professionals and the public on how to deal with acute poisonings, told The Post it was “not possible to tell if a toxic methanol ingestion occurred” at this stage.
Methanol is often found in fuels, plastics, pesticides, paint and antifreeze. It is poisonous to humans and can cause an array of adverse health effects, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most methanol poisonings occur as a result of drinking beverages contaminated with the substance or from drinking products that contain it, the CDC says, adding that signs and symptoms of exposure, which may result in death, include nausea, dilated pupils, a decreased level of consciousness and respiratory arrest.
Methanol is sometimes purchased in bulk and added to alcoholic drinks to increase profit, which can cause severe outbreaks of sickness, according to the Methanol Poisoning initiative, launched by Oslo University Hospital and Doctors Without Borders.
Marks said that 24 cases of methanol poisoning had been reported to South Africa’s poison information helpline since 1 January 2020, with home-brew drinks being responsible for most of the cases.
One witness told The Post that those suffering inside the venue yelled “I can’t breathe” and “I’m choking” before they dropped to the floor and died around her. Others recalled being “suffocated” by a substance that “smelled like gas.”
Dekeda said final results may “take weeks or months” to obtain. Asked whether other possible causes of death were being investigated, she said: “Not at the moment.”
Last week, South African police said the 52-year-old owner of the Enyobeni Tavern was arrested along with two employees, ages 33 and 34. The owner is expected to appear in court next month, facing charges that include supplying underage people with alcohol, Reuters reported.
A funeral for the 21 teenagers was held on July 6, their coffins laid out side by side, surrounded by candles and yellow and white roses.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered a eulogy, sharing details about their lives, their personalities and their hopes for the future.
“These are the lives we have lost,” he said as he named the victims. “Our nation has lost young people who wanted to become doctors, teachers, policemen and women, lawyers, actors, businesspeople and entrepreneurs.”
In his speech, Ramaphosa said the government would clamp down on those profiting from underage drinking.
“Blame must be laid at the feet of those who are making money off the dreams and lives of the young people of South Africa by breaking the law and selling them alcohol,” he said as he urged law enforcement officials and parents to work together to stop illegal events and other activity. “Today it is somebody else’s child; tomorrow it could be yours.”
Wroughton reported from Cape Town.