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UCLA instructor leads study finding carcinogenic metals in popular African alcohol

Ochan Otim, a chemistry instructor for UCLA Extension, led a group of researchers that identified toxic metals in sachet alcohol, a popular type of alcohol in Uganda. (Courtesy of UCLA Extension)

By Bernard Mendez

April 10, 2019 3:17 a.m.

A group of researchers led by a UCLA instructor has identified several toxic metals in sachet alcohol, a popular form of alcohol in Uganda.

Many of these metals, including lead, arsenic and chromium, are known to cause cancer.

Led by Ochan Otim, a chemistry instructor for UCLA Extension, the group tested 13 brands of Ugandan sachet alcohol in a study published Feb. 27.

To test sachet alcohol samples, the researchers first added nitric acid, then heated and then cooled each sample. Afterward, they used a mass spectrometer to analyze the samples’ metal content.

In order to determine the health risk of each sample, the researchers used the target hazard quotient, a method of estimating exposure risk to harmful chemicals established by the Environmental Protection Agency.

According to the study, sachet alcohol is carcinogenic, and no amount of sachet alcohol is safe for human consumption.

Otim said sachet alcohol became popular among the Acoli ethnic group in Uganda. He said the Ugandan government placed the Acoli in internment camps following a civil war, and the Acoli turned to alcohol to relieve their pain.

During this time, the Acoli experienced disproportionately high rates of alcohol-related deaths. According to the study, in 2008, over 100 deaths were associated with alcohol poisoning.

Recently, sachet alcohol has spread from Uganda into neighboring countries due to its low cost, Otim said.

He said sachet alcohol is especially dangerous because many consumers are unaware of the health risks.

“People drop dead without knowing what’s about to happen,” Otim said. “Every family has at least lost one or two or three, or sometimes five – sometimes the entire family is wiped out.”

Otim said he lost three brothers due to sachet alcohol. He also said the alcohol causes addiction, blindness and loss of teeth.

Moses Odokonyero, who runs a media organization in Uganda, said there had been no scientific study that identified the risks of sachet alcohol consumption among Ugandans before Otim’s study.

He said he hopes the study will show people sachet alcohol is dangerous.

“It’s a very important issue that should have significant space in the public sphere,” Odokonyero said. “It is something that should be thrust into the public agenda.”

Odokonyero also said he thinks the government should increase regulation, enact policies on alcohol consumption and educate people of the dangers of drinking sachet alcohol to reduce alcohol-related deaths in Uganda.

Otim said schools do not exist in some areas of Uganda and education would help inform people about the dangers of sachet alcohol consumption.

Princess Udeh, a second-year anthropology student and member of the Afrikan Student Union at UCLA, said developing countries like Uganda need to take loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. One of the requirements to do so is to privatize their education.

“Because of those privatization laws, it’s just hard for people to get the education they need and it’s why children really aren’t in schools,” she said. “More programs to help fundraise and provide the funds for students to get education in Uganda would be great.”

Udeh said she thinks education could help people find other paths than alcohol.

“I think education helps you figure out what you want to do in life,” she said. “Because education isn’t really public and it’s hard to obtain, people turn to alcoholism because it’s what they have.”

In a future study, Otim said he plans to use gas chromatography, a method that involves evaporating a mixture to determine its contents based on differing boiling points, to find the organic content of the alcohol.

This includes ethanol, which, according to the study, poses a more serious health threat to consumers.

“It’s just endless. Everyday somebody is being buried. It’s an everyday occurrence,” Otim said. “At this rate, I don’t think somebody is going to be there in the next 20 years.”

Otim said he hopes to recruit others to help his cause.

“I’m available anytime if anyone has a solution for this problem,” he said. “I’m pretty sure someone out there knows how to deal with this better than me.”

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Bernard Mendez | News editor
Mendez is the 2020-2021 News editor. He was previously a staff news reporter for the Science & Health beat and a developer for The Stack. He is also a third-year math student at UCLA.
Mendez is the 2020-2021 News editor. He was previously a staff news reporter for the Science & Health beat and a developer for The Stack. He is also a third-year math student at UCLA.
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