Litha Matiwane, the Eastern Cape province’s deputy director for clinical services, said initial tests ruled out alcohol and carbon monoxide poisoning as possible causes of death and authorities were awaiting more conclusive results from a laboratory in Cape Town.
The victims, aged between 13 and 17, were found slumped on tables and chairs inside the Enyobeni Tavern in the coastal town of East London on June 26. the victims had inhaled or ingested a toxic substance. No obvious signs of injury were present.
The deaths have sparked a nationwide debate about underage drinking in taverns in South Africa’s black townships, which are plagued by poverty, high unemployment and a lack of basic services in a legacy of apartheid. The legal drinking age in South Africa is 18.
Yonela Dekeda, spokeswoman for the Eastern Cape Health Department, told the Washington Post that early test results were “inconclusive”.
“Further testing is underway to pinpoint the exact cause of death,” she said. “We can’t say at this point where they got the methanol, whether through alcohol or something else. It’s still unknown.”
Families seek justice after nightclub death in South Africa
Methanol is often found in fuels, plastics, pesticides, paint and antifreeze. It is toxic to humans and can have many adverse health effects, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most methanol poisonings occur from consuming beverages contaminated with the substance or consumer products that contain it, according to the CDC, adding that the signs and symptoms of exposure, which can lead to death, include nausea, dilated pupils, decreased level of consciousness and respiratory arrest.
Methanol is sometimes bought in bulk and added to alcoholic beverages to boost profits, which can cause serious outbreaks, according to the methanol poisoning initiativelaunched by Oslo University Hospital and Doctors Without Borders.
A witness told the Post that those in pain inside the room cried out “I can’t breathe” and “I’m choking” before falling to the ground and dying around her. Others reminded being “choked” on a substance that “smelled like gas”.
Survivor describes nightclub disaster: ‘I can’t breathe’
Dekeda said final results could “take weeks or months” to be achieved. When asked if other possible causes of death were being investigated, she replied: “Not at the moment.”
Last week, South African police said that Tavern owner Enyobeni, 52, was arrested along with two employees aged 33 and 34. The owner is expected to appear in court next month, facing charges that include supplying alcohol to minors, Reuters reported.
The funerals of the 21 teenagers took place on July 6, their coffins laid side by side, surrounded by candles and yellow and white roses.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered a eulogy, sharing details about their lives, personalities and hopes for the future.
“These are the lives we lost,” he said, naming the victims. “Our nation has lost young people who wanted to become doctors, teachers, police officers and women, lawyers, actors, businessmen and entrepreneurs.”
In his speech, Ramaphosa said the government would crack down on those who profit from underage drinking.
“The blame must be laid at the feet of those who make money from the dreams and lives of young people in South Africa by breaking the law and selling them alcohol,” he said as he urged law enforcement officials and parents to work together to stop illegal events and other activities. “Today it’s someone else’s child; tomorrow it could be yours.
Wroughton reported from Cape Town.