Three young women died after drinking homemade wine in a rented unit near Aeon Mall in Tonle Bassac commune of Phnom Penh's Chamkarmon district on September 1.

Local authorities suspect that their deaths were due to poisoning by tainted wine.

Tonle Bassac commune police chief Sal Sandos said his officers were alerted to the incident around 11am on September 2.

“The officers found a bottle of traditional rice wine in the unit. Our preliminary conclusion is that their deaths may have been caused by poisoning from tainted wine,” he said.

According to reports filed by local police, two of the three women died at the scene and a third woman died upon arrival in their hometown that evening.

The three women were between 18 and 20 years old. Two were waitresses in a restaurant and one worked in a beauty salon, the report said.

Tonle Bassac commune chief Khat Narith said the two bodies had been handed over to their families and transported to their respective hometowns for funeral rites.

A woman who asked not to be identified said her 18-year-old niece was one of the women who died in the unit. She said her niece was an orphan who had recently been working in the capital as a waitress.

“On the afternoon of September 1 at 3pm, I made a phone call to my niece and asked where she was. She replied that she was drinking in a rented unit with four friends – three girls and one boy.

“I told her not to drink [traditional] wine because a lot of people have died recently from it. But my niece just said she’d be fine and then she turned off her phone. Then on the morning of September 2, another relative called me and broke the news that [my niece] died after drinking tainted wine so we went and brought her body home for her funeral,” the woman said.

Two of the women were from Kandal and the other was from Prey Veng. They had been living in different rented rooms while working in Phnom Penh.

From June 2020 through July 2021, a total of 70 people nationwide have died from traditional rice wine and herbal wine poisoning, according to a Ministry of Commerce report.

Home-distillers who brew traditional rice wine to sell can end up unknowingly making wine tainted with fatal levels of methanol due to mistakes made during its production. In some cases, it may be added to the wine intentionally because methanol is cheaper than alcohol and diluting their wine with it increases their profits.