South African authorities investigating the mysterious deaths of 21 youths last month at a bar in the Eastern Cape have detected methanol, a toxic industrial alcohol, in the systems of the deceased. Medical experts have yet to conclude if the amount of methanol was lethal but say initial reports rule out poisoning from carbon monoxide or ethanol, the alcohol found in drinks.
Due to a backlog at the toxicology lab in Cape Town, officials are not able to say when the final report will be available.
Some of the 21 teenagers, the youngest being just 13 years old, were out celebrating the end of mid-year exams. Seventeen of them died on the scene while the other four died later in hospitals.
Dr. Litha Matiwane, the deputy director general of the Eastern Cape Health Department, says the division has received the initial results from bloodwork.
“We are looking for other activities that might come through, for example, folic acid, which is a by-product of methanol, and may actually tell us more about the concentrations and the levels actually found and whether there is toxicity,” said Matiwane.
Matiwane says investigators are also testing gastric samples.
“That will also tell us what they’d been drinking and so forth. So, there are other activities and other toxicological processes that are going on in the lab in Cape Town,” said Matiwane.
Speaking of the backlog of cases at the lab, the premier of the Eastern Cape Province, Oscar Mabuyane, says he understands that the families of the deceased young people want answers. But he has appealed for patience and understanding.
“Because all cases are sensitive, all people are looking for their results, whether it’s gender-based violence, or rapes and other things that are taking place out there,” said Mabuyane.
Meanwhile, National Police Minister Bheki Cele was also at Tuesday’s media briefing, He says police have not ruled out the possibility of more arrests.
The bar owner and two employees have been charged in connection with contravening the Liquor Act with regards to selling alcohol to minors. The 52-year-old owner will appear in court on August 19.
The two employees were fined just 2,000 rand or $117 each, prompting outrage on social media.
Cele again reassured the community that all is being done to get to the bottom of what happened.
“The police are here. A special investigation team from both the provincial and head office since we take the matter very, very seriously and we hope we will find out as the case continues what really happened on that particular day,” said Bheki. “We are not ruling out any form of finding other people that will be able to answer and give accountability of what happened.”
Officials say they will be doing more to help the families, some of whom have lost their only child.