Methanol deaths spark concern over Tunisia's rural youth

With schools closed and most informal sector activities halted by travel restrictions, many youth in poorer regions face a higher risk of delinquency on top of unemployment.
Tuesday 26/05/2020
Tunisian men in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid. (AFP)
Tunisian men in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid. (AFP)

TUNIS--The consumption of methanol-tainted perfume killed seven Tunisian youth and sent at least 56 others to hospitals in critical condition Monday and Tuesday.

The development raised questions about the situation of idle youth in Tunisia’s poor, rural regions amid COVID-19 confinement measures.

With schools closed and most informal sector activities halted by travel restrictions, many youth in these areas face a higher risk of delinquency on top of chronic unemployment.

Health authorities in the province of Kairouan (central Tunisia) said Tuesday that five people, including three brothers, died after consuming local eau-de-cologne mixed with methanol.

According to the authorities, 19 more people were transported Monday and Tuesday to hospitals in Kairouan and Kasserine, further east, as well as the coastal city of Sousse. Five were reported to be in critical condition and some had to undergo dialysis.

Those affected came from poor, rural areas spanning the provinces of Kairouna and Sidi Bouzid.

Police officers search the backpack of a youth in Tunis, July 3, 2019. (REUTERS)
Police officers search the backpack of a youth in Tunis, July 3, 2019. (REUTERS)

Official sources said a police investigation was underway. Two individuals suspected of trafficking the contaminated eau de cologne were arrested with 80 litres of the highly-toxic substance in their possession.

Official sources said additional medical teams and security reinforcements have been sent to the areas to deal with other potential cases.

According to Kairouan regional health director Hamdi Hadhri, there are now over 30 methanol-related health cases.

Methanol, commercially used as a paint solvent and anti-freeze solution, is sometimes used as a surrogate for alcohol. It is highly toxic and can be lethal.

The spike in methanol poisoning cases came during the Eid al-Fitr holiday, which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan during which alcohol sales are prohibited. Some Tunisian youth engage in binge-drinking on the occasion.

Alcoholic beverages are legally produced and sold in Tunisia.

Under Islamist influence, however, a number of municipalities around the country have issued ordinances withholding licenses for the sale of such beverages.