Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Wamin Li, 53, a Chinese businessman who is the owner of company which imports and distributes alcohol today made his first court appearance. Mr. Li was charged in Phnom Penh Municipal Court with selling more than 4,000 liters of fake alcohol throughout the capital. Li was charged with ““selling and distributing prohibited and counterfeit alcohol, methanol and other unregistered items”. He is the first seller charged in Cambodia since measures to curb the coronavirus pandemic were instituted throughout Cambodia.
Major Nuon Rithy, deputy chief of the Interior Ministry’s Consumer Protection, Competition and Fraud Prevention Office said that Mr. Li was arrested at his home on Friday. His arrest was the result of concurrently ongoing investigations into a surge of methanol laced spirits and hand sanitizers throughout the nation that appear to be centered in Phnom Penh.
Major Nuon Rithy related that Li was charged under the Law on Combating Counterfeit Medicines after police seized 4,000 liters of fake alcohol and 300 liters of methanol at his rental home. He will remain in prison, where he has been held since his arrest, until the disposition of his case. Major Rithy said he faces a term of 6 months to 2 years if found guilty by the courts.
After the arraignment of Wamin Li, The General Department of Consumer Protection, Competition and Fraud Prevention announced that in the past few weeks they have seized 650,000 liters of hand-sanitizers across Cambodia made with methanol. In announcing the extraordinary volume of seizures, cases were highlighted by the Department’s Director Long Sreng.
These cases included a seizure at the home of Lim Huy who was in possession of 19 yellow buckets of methanol weighing 163kg each, 75 jerry cans and pumping equipment. Mr. Huy was mandated to sign a contract with the Department agreeing to stop importing and distributing fake alcohol in lieu of being charged.
Joining in the nationwide investigation into the illicit use of methanol in hand-sanitizers, the Cambodia Import-Export Inspection and Fraud Repression Directorate-General, Phan Oun said they were continuing to inspect pharmacies around the Olympic Market area. They are paying attention to this area as previous visits have revealed a large concentration of the illicit products in these pharmacies.
Director Sreng provided an anecdotal tip to consumers to check if the hand-sanitizer contains ethanol which is safe for human application or methanol which can lead to serious health consequences when applied to the skin and absorbed into the body. “Another way to assess the content is when we wash hands with methanol, our hands dry in a few minutes. However, with ethanol, it will take longer, and the user will identify a slippery substance when applied,” he said.
After the Wamin Li arraignment, Phan Oun, Directorate-General of Cambodia Import-Export Inspection and Fraud Repression, highlighted two other cases that his agency pursued. The first case involved the seizure of 59,402 liters of fake alcohol at #188, St 13A, in Kandal province’s Bek Chan commune in Ang Snuol district. The second case led to the seizure of 64,178 liters of fake alcohol at #02, St 01A, Borey Piphup Thmey gated community, in Kambol district’s Kantouk commune in Phnom Penh. No arrests were made in either case, however summonses were issued in the name of the property owners for them to appear at the Prosecutor’s Office for disposition of the case.
Ingesting methanol in counterfeit alcohol is extremely harmful to health. It leads to organ damage, blindness, and death. It has been a favorite ingredient of counterfeit alcohol bootleggers throughout history. The coronavirus pandemic has now opened a new market for the counterfeiters. With demand skyrocketing and supplies limited for hand-sanitizers to combat the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, it is a prolific target for counterfeiters.
As making hand sanitizers with methanol is a new phenomenon, there are not extensive studies on the damage done by applying methanol to the skin. We can know that ingesting methanol can and does lead to serious health consequences, so we can assume that if the skin absorbs enough and enters the blood stream the same grave consequences can occur.
These cases from Cambodia are a red siren warning to the rest of the world as it copes with the high demand for hand sanitizers to fight the pandemic. If the seized volume of methanol laced hand-sanitizers is so extremely large, it is a sure bet that the available product is much larger, and the tentacles of these bootleg alcohol peddlers is far reaching.
While most governments are overwhelmed with the medical response that is required by COVID-19 cases, their resources to investigate counterfeit products and beverages containing methanol is severely limited. Consumers should be extra vigilant during the pandemic when using any product that should contain ethanol, as it will be a target for counterfeiters.
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Written by: Daniel Dachille – Staff Writer for SafeProof.org