Drinking heavy metal contaminated alcohol in Uganda

Okot Nyormoi

*is a novelist and Co-Editor of Nile Journal

The International Agency on Cancer Research has listed alcohol as a cancer-causing agent whereas the American National Institute of Health has established that alcohol is a co-factor in causing multiple cancers: including throat, intestinal as well as breast cancer. Ingestion of food, water, or substance, contaminated with heavy metals, multiplies these health risks greatly. These are facts.

Yet in a corner of northern Uganda, where live the musical Acholi, not only is there an alarming rate of alcohol consumption among the general populace, the alcohol consumed there and available here, has been shown to have a heavy dose of heavy metal. Now, the Acholi people were perhaps the community most affected by the 20-year-old war that devastated the whole of northern Uganda from 1986 to 2006. Over this period over 90 percent of the population were forced into internment camps where conditions were appalling, where death was a daily occurrence. Partly as coping strategy, the community took to alcohol in a big way. Today, continued political marginalization plus the activities of unscrupulous alcohol manufacturers and suppliers, appear to knowingly promote the massive public consumption of alcohol.

Simultaneous with the rise in alcohol consumption was the rise in death rate never seen before, which prompted people to anecdotally blame sachet-packaged alcohol. This was followed by a growing demand for a ban on sachet-packaged alcohol. The public outcry against sachet-packaged alcohol prompted an investigation of whether the sachet-packaged alcohol has heavy metals in it and whether the levels of the metals pose health risks compared to international standard.

The study was a collaboration between Dr Ochan Otim, a chemist affiliated with the University of California, Los Angeles, United States of America, Tom Juma, a Chemist affiliated with the Environmental Monitoring Division, Los Angeles, California, and Dr Olara Otunnu, a former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Samples were collected between 2014 and 2015. The findings were reported in a paper entitled ‘‘Assessing the health risks of consuming ‘sachet’ alcohol in Acholi, Uganda’’, published on February 27, 2019 in an online US-based journal, PLOS ONE, a multidisciplinary Open Access journal publishing scientifically rigorous research.

In summary, they investigated 12 brands of 100-mL sachet-packaged spirits: Big 5 Vodka, Beckham Spirit, Bond 7 Whisky, Brigade Spirit, Chief Waragi Spirit, Goal Vodka, Kick Spirit Pineapple Waragi, Relax, Royal Vodka, Salongo Spirit, Uganda Waragi and V6 Tangawizi Vodka. Other samples included locally brewed alcohol—Lira-Lira whose samples were picked from Bolo, Awere in Omoro district, Teso Bar in Lira district and Nsambya police barracks in Kampala. The 13th spirit was a Scottish Whisky purchased in San Diego, California, USA, used as a certified reference alcohol.

Samples were tested for the presence and level of heavy metals including silver, arsenic, aluminum, barium, beryllium, cadmium, cobalt, chromium, copper, manganese, molybdenum, nickel and lead. The others were antimony, selenium, tin, vanadium, thallium, strontium and zinc. The results were then analyzed statistically to determine the level of health risks posed by the consumption of the respective metal-contaminated alcohol.

The study found that all 20 selected heavy-metals were in various amounts detected in the Ugandan spirits sold in Acholi land. However, Uganda Waragi and Bond 7, both made by East African Breweries Limited, had low detectable levels of metals. A brew known as Lira-Lira had high level of one of the metals, copper.

The results confirmed the prediction that over time, not only are heavy metals being consumed in large amounts in the Acholi region but also that toxic amounts of these metals are accumulating in tissues of alcohol drinkers, especially young males who are the heavy consumers.

Public concern about the increasing number of deaths, crimes and loss of productivity attributed to alcohol consumption was serious enough for some government authorities to accede to the demand for banning sachet-packaged alcohol. In January 2016, Gulu District passed the Gulu Alcoholic Drinks Control Ordinance to regulate the production, sale and consumption of sachet-packaged Waragi below 250 ml.

Similarly, on March 2nd, 2019, Uganda government abolished sachet-packaging of alcoholic drinks. According to the ban, alcohol producers were allegedly warned a couple of years before to switch to plastic and glass bottles for packaging alcohol. Imposing this ban on the heel of the publication of a paper on heavy metal contamination of sachet-alcohol on February 27, 2019, appears to be a public relations gimmick to blunt anticipated adverse publicity.

Although these are positive steps taken to combat the negative effects of consuming sachet-packaged alcohol, they do not address the question of what exactly may be causing death among consumers. Bearing this in mind, the researchers took the first approach of its kind to address the root cause of alcohol-related deaths at the local level in a sub-Sahara African country. It is now known that at least one of the factors, heavy metals, account for the pronounced health risks in the Acholi population of Uganda.

More studies need to be done to address other yet unanswered questions. For example, unless the source of the metal contamination is known, banning sachet-packaging or switching to plastic and glass bottles as the government recommended will not prevent the contamination of alcohol with heavy metals. Government decision to merely ban sachet-packaging for alcohol, was not evidence-based, and will be ineffective in addressing the underlying cause of the present health hazards.

When the researchers considered all aspects of the problem, they concluded that no alcohol consumed in Acholi land and probably in the whole of Uganda, is safe. They hope that their study is merely the beginning of a more complete approach to developing evidence-based management of the health risks posed by alcohol consumption in Uganda and in all other countries with similar problems.