By David Hennessy
Many young British and Irish people head to Asia every year either on brief holidays or for more extended travels. Family would worry about many things when a loved one is so far from home but may never imagine the danger that could be in their glass but young people have been dying in Indonesia after drinking spirits containing deadly methanol.
Methanol is extremely poisonous and is known to cause kidney failure, blindness, seizures and death. As little as 30ml can be deadly for an adult. Indonesia has a high alcohol tax of more than 200 per cent on some products causing locals to brew their own home-made spirits. Methanol is a by-product of poor distillation techniques.
Beauty therapist Cheznye Emmons, from Great Wakering in Essex, was 23 years old and backpacking in Indonesia with her boyfriend when she died of methanol poisoning in April this year. Falling ill the day after consuming gin that came in an authentic looking bottle and was bought in a local shop, Cheznye and her boyfriend Joe Cook made the fiver hour trip to hospital. Her father and mother Brenton and Pamela Emmons travelled the great distance to where their daughter in an induced coma. Told by doctors there was nothing they could do, they had to make the decision to turn off her life support machine.
Cheznye was not the first traveller to die in such circumstances. In 2009, 25 people died after drinking a batch of methanol-tainted “arak” in Bali. Last year, Swede Johan Lundin, 28, was poisoned by a mojito laced with methanol at a bar on Gili Trawangan island near Bali. His fiancee, Michaela Pechac, tried to raise the alarm but could find no one around the remote location at the late hour.
In 2009, 25 year old Rachel Craig from Drogheda finished her university studies and embarked on travels that took her to the island of Gili Trawangen near Bali, Indonesia. Craig died in agony after drinking a deadly batch arak.
21 year old Kildare woman Roisin Burke became seriously ill and died two days after drinking a locally brewed alcoholic drink in May 2011.
Cheznye’s family are now campaigning for awareness of the risks that are present for those travelling to Indonesia with their Chez- Save A Life Campaign which hopes to bring methanol poisoning in Indonesia to a halt. The advice is to stick to beer when travelling to exotic locations like Indonesia.
“As a family, we were all very close,” Cheznye’s sister Measha tells The Irish World. “I think it’s been really hard for everybody. Because it came as such a shock to us, we had never heard of methanol poisoning, everybody agreed that we wouldn’t want this to happen to anybody else. It’s given us a bit of strength to be able to do the campaign.
“The tourist industry in Indonesia is so huge now, there’s over 100,000 people going there every year and it’s not safe which is a dangerous number of people to be going there and not being aware. As the tourist numbers increase, the death toll goes up. It’s been mainly in the last three or four years that the deaths have started coming thick and fast, there’s just been too many.”
Cheznye was exploring with boyfriend Cook and another male friend. Her 26 year old sister Measha recounts how a fun night turned into tragedy: “They had been out and bought the drink and headed back out into the jungle they were staying in at the time and they had made some punch. A woman’s metabolism is slightly different from a man’s and they (the men) had both had some as well but she was drinking a lot of the punch and they were drinking beers and things like that as well.
“The next day she woke up and she had lost her vision altogether and her boyfriend, obviously in a panic, took her to the place closest to them which was an eye clinic and they advised her to go straight to the hospital. When she got to hospital, she had a seizure and went into a coma: That was the following day. That is how simply and quickly it can affect your body.
“I got a call from Joe, Cheznye’s boyfriend, and he was asking me to get in contact with the whole family just to tell them that she was in hospital. At this time, we didn’t really know what was going on but we all got together as a family and decided that mum and dad needed to get out there.
“My mum and dad went out and I think it was four days after she had gone into a coma, they were told that there was no chance of her surviving it, there was no brain waves coming across.”
Cheznye’s father Brenton Emmons relived this ordeal when he travelled back to Indonesia in July as he was able to himself travel his daughter’s last journey to the hospital, a five hour trek: “I think it was nice in some respects for him because he got to walk her final footsteps. I think it must have been very traumatic to have to feel that again.”
Police in Indonesia raided a distillery with over 5,000 bottles of gin and five people, including the shop owner who sold Cheznye the poisoned alcohol, have been arrested: However, Brenton was still able to buy a bottle of Mansion House gin, which was the fatal beverage for Cheznye: “Unfortunately since he’s been back, we still haven’t had much progress from that side which is a shame after all that effort and money we’ve spent as a family although the campaign has achieved a great deal. If we’re not getting the message out over there, we’re definitely getting the message out over here. That’s a good thing.
“When it first happened, I thought it was a very uncommon thing but since then we’ve realised it’s a massive issue. What we thought initially was that it was just down to shop owners and when my dad got out there, we were told there was a factory that had been raided that was linked to the alcohol that Cheznye had purchased and it was a whole factory rather than just the one individual.
“I think what they’re only picking up on is the tourists. There’s over 1,000 a year being killed that are Indonesian and people are not picking up on that so the problem must be so huge. And it’s not just in the bottles, there’s quite a few people who have died from drinking cocktails in bars.”
The Emmons family would now like to see people warned about the danger of methanol poisoning when getting their vaccinations prior to travelling: “Since the very beginning, we’ve been looking at so many different ideas of how to get the message out there and for us the strongest idea is with the NHS because when you go to these countries, you have to go and get the jabs. Just one leaflet is so simple and could save so many lives so quickly because that is the place where everybody going to that country would go first.
“We’ve written to the NHS, we’ve been writing to the health officials and it’s something at the moment that they don’t think would be appropriate. They don’t think it’s a necessity. They don’t think it’s a widespread enough problem. We’re trying to push posters in airports as well.
“So many people finish school now and go travelling rather than go to university and you tend to find a lot of the tourists that this is happening to are young people. It is a scary thought to think that they wouldn’t be willing to even consider it.”
The family will continue to do all they can to spread knowledge about methanol poisoning so that everyone understands the danger, the symptoms, the effects and the treatment of methanol poisoning and also to get full justice for Cheznye: “With Cheznye’s case, because we were so adamant as a family that we didn’t want anyone to suffer the way we had, we’ve managed to get the point out there with our story but it’s still not reaching everyone. This is not something that’s just going to stop.”
For more information on Chez- Save a Life Campaign, you can go to: https://www.facebook.com/CHEZsavealifecampaign.
Another group campaigning on the same issue are A Drink To Die From and they can be found at: http://adrinktodiefrom.wordpress.com/2012/10/16/a-drink-to-die-from/.