At least 16 people have died shortly after drinking homemade alcohol while one woman has been detained on suspicion of negligent murder.
The victims were all found dead or dying soon after being taken to hospital in the same area of Kaunas, Lithuania.
“Since the beginning of this month, a total of 16 men and women of various ages have died in Kaunas hospitals, possibly from the same alcohol surrogate, most of them residents of the same district,” the Kaunas Regional Prosecutor’s Office said in a statement on Tuesday. “Another 2 people are currently being treated by doctors. It is not ruled out that the number of people intoxicated with alcohol may increase further.”
Officers arrested a 63-year-old woman last week and charged her with negligent deprivation of life, prosecutors said. The woman reportedly had prior convictions for illicit trafficking in domestic alcoholic beverages and ethyl alcohol.
During a search of the woman’s home, authorities found containers with liquid of unknown origin. The items have been taken for further investigation.
“Kaunas Regional Prosecutor’s Office is currently carrying out 17 pre-trial investigations, including 16 on the cause of death and another one on negligent deprivation of life,” prosecutor Auksė Lipkevičienė from Kaunas Regional Prosecutor’s Office told reporters on Tuesday.
According to Lithuanian public broadcaster LRT, the victims were aged between 30 and 60 years old.
Another person was also suspected of illegal distribution of alcohol but he died of poisoning on Monday night.
Law enforcement officials and doctors have warned those in the community not to buy or consume alcoholic beverages of unknown origin.
According to Jonas Šurkus, a doctor of clinical toxicology at the Nephrology Clinic of Kaunas Clinics, alcohol surrogates are substances that contain various alcohols and are used to intoxicate, but often the use of these drinks can result in death. Alcohol surrogates fall into two groups: those with ethanol, which is simply called alcohol, and those without ethanol, such as ethylene glycol (antifreeze) and methanol (wood spirit).
“Alcohol poisoning with ethanol is usually not severe. However, ethylene glycol and methanol poisoning can be fatal even after timely treatment. Surviving patients may be left with irreversible organ damage, such as kidney failure or blindness,” Šurkus told prosecutors.
The toxicologist added that he believed the 16 victims were probably poisoned with methanol.
“It is a very cunning alcohol, the most poisonous surrogate of alcohol,” he told local publication apollo.lv, adding that it is no different from ordinary alcohol [ethanol] but its decomposition products are very toxic.