JOHANNESBURG — The toxic chemical methanol has been identified as a possible cause of the deaths of 21 teenagers at a bar in the South African town of East London last month.
Methanol was found throughout their bodies and investigations are continuing to determine if levels of the toxic chemical were sufficient to have killed them.
“Methanol was detected in all 21 people present, but there is still progressive analysis of quantitative methanol levels and whether it could have been the final cause of death,” said Dr Litha Matiwane, Eastern Cape provincial deputy director for clinical service, said at a press conference in East London on Tuesday.
Authorities are still awaiting conclusive results which are being conducted at a laboratory in Cape Town, he said.
Methanol is a toxic form of alcohol that is used industrially as a solvent, pesticide or alternative fuel source. It is not used in the production of alcohol sold for human consumption.
It is not yet known how the youngsters ingested the methanol.
Alcohol poisoning and carbon monoxide inhalation were both ruled out as possible causes of death, although traces of both were detected in the bodies of the 21 victims, Matiwane said.
The teenagers died at the Enyobeni Tavern in East London’s Scenery Park township in the early hours of June 26, shocking the country and prompting several investigations by police and liquor licensing authorities.
Many teenagers, aged between 13 and 17, were found dead in the tavern, their bodies strewn across tables and sofas. Others died after being rushed to nearby health facilities.
South African police will be guided by the final results of the toxicology test to determine whether anyone will face criminal charges for the 21 deaths, National Police Minister Bheki Cele said.
Tavern owner Enyobeni and some employees have been arrested and are currently out on bail as they face charges related to violating liquor trade laws, including selling alcohol to children .
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke at a mass funeral for teenagers and promised his government would take action to stop alcohol being served to children under 18.
The death of the youngsters at the east London bar is separate from the shootings at three bars in South Africa earlier this month, in which a total of 22 people were killed. In all three incidents, the suspects opened fire on customers before speeding off in their vehicles and the assailants notably did not rob the victims. In the worst incident, gunmen burst into a bar in Johannesburg’s Soweto township and opened fire, killing 16 people.