Methanolics are the new mad hatters

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Winos are going crazy after years of drinking methanol-laced moonshine

Alcohol addicts are treated at Hanoi Mental Hospital with neurosis caused by methanol-doped rice wine. Photo by Minh Sang

Phan Van Ngoan does not allow himself to go to any community events, even holiday parties.

Villagers in the tiny Ha Nam Province commune Ngoan calls home say he is "lazy."

But his wife, Tran Thi Tre, said the 57-year-old is just trying to avoid being invited to drink after years of drinking methane-tainted homemade hooch, which doctors said brought on symptoms of psychosis and insanity in Ngoan and other drinkers.

Doctors in Vietnam are saying that many patients they treat for neurosis have been drinking rice wine (rượu Ä‘ế in Vietnamese) doped with methanol an industrial chemical added to increase the alcohol content. They found abnormally high methanol content in Ngoan's blood even for a drinker and in many other patients under treatment for psychotic episodes.

Lush's life

Tre said she started sending Ngoan to mental hospitals all over northern Vietnam once he could no longer recognize his wife and children.

"Every time he came home from a local party, he was drunk and stayed in bed for two or three days, almost unconscious," she said.

"Or he would smash the furniture, burn clothes, beat me and the children. One time he must have drunk a lot, so he smashed the altar and chased us with a knife threatening to kill us."

She brought him to Ha Nam Mental Hospital the first time only once he had passed out from a lot of drinking. He has now spent nearly ten years in and out of various hospitals. But his mental capabilities have not fully recovered; his short term memory is shot, and he cannot even remember how to get to his house from town.


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Ngoan in fact just arrived home after one month of treatment at Hanoi's leading Bach Mai Hospital poison center, where doctors said the methanol in the bootlegged alcohol he had been drinking caused neurosis.

Like the mad-hatters of old, methanol does not destroy sanity right away, but over time it eats away major brain functions, doctors said.

Now Ngoan's family has to foot his medical bills on their own as none of the construction companies Ngoan used to work for will hire him anymore for fear of drunken episodes laced with insanity and fighting.

Drinking the Kool-Aid

Tran Dinh Hoan, 64, a neighbor of Ngoan's in Hop Ly Commune, is also suffering neurosis after more than 20 years of drinking methane-contaminated booze.

Hoan said he can barely taste the alcohol he drinks now, but it makes him more destructive and violent than ever.

He has received treatment at several mental hospitals, most recently in last December.

Doctor Le Quoc Dan from Hanoi Mental Hospital, where both Ngoan and Hoan have sought treatment, said the hospital received more than 50 cases of drunk patients every month, and the number has increased recently.

Dan said tests found elevated levels of methanol in the blood of all patients who have drunk rice wine produced in household factories without following safety or hygiene regulations.

Most of the patients were admitted to the hospital unconscious and suffered multiple disorders and many could have died without immediate transfusions, he said.

The doctor said signs of neurosis would come after drinking a lot of methanol-doped "wine" over a period of three or five years.

Many patients have a much longer history of drinking, like Nguyen Van Giap, 28, who has been drinking methanol hooch for ten years and cannot go a day without it, or Tran Quoc Hoan, 48, who has been drinking methanol for 15 years, turning from a man of two university degrees into an unemployed divorcee.

A chemical usually used in paint and fuel, methanol is highly toxic for humans. As little as 100 milliliters of methanol can cause blindness.

Vietnamese law limits methanol to 0.1 milligrams per liter of liquor.

But doctors at Bach Mai Hospital said bad moonshine can be poisonous even without methanol.

Nguyen Dam Chinh from Bach Mai's Poison Control Center said heavy alcohol poisoning can damage the muscle cells and debris from the destruction can block the kidneys and cause them to decline.

More severe cases can lead to rhabdomyolysis, a condition involving damaged skeletal muscle tissue that can be fatal if not treated early, he said.

A report by the Vietnam Food Administration in late September last year said poison hooch has killed 66 people in Vietnam since 2007, and has hospitalized another 183 people.

Most of the deaths were caused by rice wine with high methanol content or with blends made using poisonous herbs, the report said, listing 328 producers, including family-run ones, that provide a total of 360 million liters of rice wine a year.

Vietnam's government recently imposed a decree aiming to restrict the sale of alcohol.

As of January 1, 2013 licenses are only issued to alcohol businesses on a limited basis, based on the population of different localities and the country as a whole.

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