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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Police say they have a poisoner

Police say they have a poisoner

poisoner.gif
poisoner.gif

GHOSTBUSTER

A young one is safe from viruses and evil spirits under the guardianship of a fine family scarecrow

POLICE have arrested a woman on suspicion of poisoning water tanks in Phnom Penh.

Police detained the woman on Wednesday night in the Tuol Kork district. She had been

surrounded by a mob of people who claimed they had caught her poisoning a water tank.

Police were reluctant to comment on the case or arrest saying they wanted to be sure

that the woman, who is Vietnamese, was not being "set-up" to provoke racial

unrest.

Khem Ron, an inspector with the Tuol Kork district police said the woman was insane

and could not be questioned. He said he suspected the woman was being used.

"This is the psycological warfare of the opposition parties," he said.

The arrest follows hundreds of poisonings over the past week, at least 71 of which

- and possbily many more - have been fatal. However the majority of those have been

attributed to adulterated rice wine, in areas as far away as Koh Kong.

In and around Phnom Penh there have been numerous poisonings or symptoms of them.

Some health authorities are blaming it on the wine while others say there is

as yet no known cause.

Police say they have a poisonerOn September 1, at least 55 garment workers collapsed

into unconsciousness in two factories about 18 kilometers west of Phnom Penh.

Doctors could find no trace of poison from blood tests on the victims and one suggested

the mass collapse was due to overwork and poor diet.

In another case at Psar Kandal, four people fell ill after eating noodles at a stall.

Police say they are also investigating this as a deliberate case of poisoning.

Hospitals in Phnom Penh are being over-run with people suffering from symptons associated

with chemical poisoning.

So far only the rice wine has been tested and found to be a cause of some, but not

all of the outbreak.

Wednesday's arrest could prove to be another component in an epidemic thats only

link is the result rather than the cause.

The rice wine problem has been identified and health authorities are trying to educate

people about its dangers but they are battling superstition and ignorance.

Samples of the wine, a popular rural "pick me up" have been found to contain

high levels of methanol, a close but more toxic relation to ethanol, the alcohol

found in liquor and beer.

Eng Hout, general secretary of the Health Ministry said that they had two tests on

the wine done in France and six done locally. The results showed as much as 40g of

methanol per liter in the samples.

There are also reports of pesticides being added to the wine because of local beliefs

that it enhances the potency.

Chop Sok Heng, Dangkor district's deputy health inspector said his staff have had

trouble convincing people the deaths are caused by wine.

"We are concerned the death toll will increase if the people don't believe it

is the wine," he said.

"The people are still drinking the wine even though we told them it is causing

the deaths."

Mom Bun Heng, Health Ministry under secretary of state said the wine is popular both

as a tonic and because of its reputed occult powers.

"The villagers believe in the [evil] spirits so they drink wine to scare the

ghosts."

He said he was very concerned that the number of deaths is increasing each day and

he has asked a French doctor at Calmette hospital to explain to the villagers that

the wine is killing them, rather than the current rash of beliefs that it is the

water, the vegetables or the spirits.

One factor that has made it hard to educate people about the dangers of rice wine

is the speed with which some people have died.

Pong Sophea, who lives in Trangpang Doung village, said that some people there had

died and others were in hospital, he believes, from drinking the wine.

But other villagers, having seen some people die almost as quickly as if they had

been shot, are saying the deaths are caused by the evil spirits.

He said he would be avoiding wine from now on but believes he has found an acceptable

substitute.

"I will not drink wine any more in my life but beer is OK," he said.

Meanwhile in other areas locals are attributing the deaths to a virus and moving

away from houses or zones they believe are infected.

Sim Poen, chief of Trapang Krasang Sangkat, said relatives and friends will not even

attend the funeral of a victim of the "virus".

"At least ten bodies in my sector have been buried without ceremony," he

said.

It has taken the combined efforts of the Red Cross, health officials and doctors

to convince people in Trapang Krasang to avoid the wine but for some people the warnings

came too late or were ignored.

Tol Heang, 36, was the last person there to die from bad wine. He continued to drink

it despite the warnings and the objections of his wife and daughter.

He became ill after drinking one liter of the wine and later died in Calmette hospital.

His daughter Heng Lina, 16, said that her father didn't believe the wine killed people.

She said he believed they died because they did not eat when they drank.

"The people who died, they drank and did not eat so they got dizzy. But I drink

and eat so it doesn't matter" she said her father told her.

Meanwhile some of the wine wholesalers are trying to institute some safety measures

to stop anything being added to the wine they sell.

Wholesaler Hear Kon said that before he sells wine to someone they must first taste

it in front of him and no-one may touch the stock other than himself.

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