most Southerners, the word moonshine conjures up
an image of a toothless hillbilly in overalls swilling from
a crockery jug. But old-fashioned notions about moonshine consumption
cease to be funny when drinkers turn up with lead poisoning
from the illegally brewed liquor, as Emory researchers at Atlantas
Grady Hospital recently discovered.
is readily available in urban Atlanta and enjoyed by a surprising
number of city-dwellers, says Brent Morgan, assistant professor
of emergency medicine at the School of Medicine and lead author
of a moonshine study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine.
The study had its genesis in the spring of 2000, when four adult
patients showed up at Grady with potentially deadly lead levels
in their blood. Three of the patients were having seizures,
the fourth severe abdominal pain. All said they had been drinking
the course of the study, researchers spoke with 581 patients,
8.6 percent of whom admitted to drinking moonshine within the
past five years. Of those, 26 percent had swigged it within
the previous week. The group of moonshine drinkers at Grady,
an inner-city hospital, were more likely to be men between forty
and fifty and were heavy drinkersfive to six times per
week, in significant quantities. Eighty-eight percent of those
studied were African American. Moonshine consumption was closely
connected with elevated blood lead levels.
first Morgan and his team were taken aback to find moonshine
in the city, where twenty-four-hour package stores abound.
when you look at the history of moonshine, he says, its
been around for a long time. Its cheaper than regular
liquor, you can buy it on Sunday, and its considered tougher
and harder than the flavored store whiskey. Its just never
completely gone away. There were these massive crackdowns in
the 1950s and 60s trying to get rid of it, but its
been kind of passed down through the culture. These [users]
are the old-time, hard drinkers.
also called street gin, corn liquor, and white lightning, is
defined as any illicitly distilled liquor or whiskey. Its
typically made from mixing corn and yeast and allowing the substance
to ferment, then heating the mash to the boiling point of alcohol.
The steam, which has a higher concentration of the buzz-producing
ethanol than the original mash, is collected using either a
series of lead or lead-soldered pipes or a car radiator. Its
in the condensation process that lead seeps into the drink.
of the Grady patients Morgan interviewed said they buy their
moonshine from stills right in Atlanta, while others get it
from north and south Georgia. It costs about $1.25 to $3 a pint,
double on Sunday. Most of the bootleggers are white, guesses
Morgan, and may have learned the trade from fathers or older
relatives whose skill dates back to segregation, when alcohol
could not legally be sold in black neighborhoods. Bootleggers
would buy off police to be able to operate in these areas, also
making huge donations to religious zealots who favored outlawing
liquor altogetherhelping to keep the bootleggers in business.
was quite a racket, Morgan says.
1951, Atlanta saw one of the most famous outbreaks of moonshine
poisoning in U.S. history: a white bootlegger, Fats Hardy, ran
out of ethanol while making a batch and replaced it with methanol,
poisoning some 323 customers and killing forty. Hardy was convicted
of murder, although he continued to proclaim his innocence (due
to ignorance of the harmful effects of methanol) from jail.
cases of lead poisoning Morgan has seen recently may be less
dramatic, but like any illegally concocted street drug, moonshine
drinking is still a dangerous gamble.
at lower levels for a longer amount of time can have effects
doctors dont connect with lead, he says. Unfortunately,
we keep finding that lower and lower levels are associated with
adverse health effects. It can be a tough thing to diagnose.P.P.P.