March 27, 2000
Volume 52, No. 26
Lead poisioning cases at Grady linked to moonshine
By LILLIAN KIM
Two people in the past two months have been treated at Grady Hospital for lead poisoning caused by drinking moonshine, according to an Emory toxicologist.
"These two that I've gotten make me think there's a new batch that's come out that has a very high level of lead in it," said Brent Morgan, assistant medical director of the Georgia Poison Center and chief of toxicology in the department of emergency medicine. He practices as an emergency physician and medical toxicologist at Grady.
Of special concern to Morgan is that this illegally produced liquor apparently is readily accessible. He said his patients obtained their moonshine from "cornhouses" in Atlanta. A pint sells for $1.25, except on Sundays when the price rises to $2.50. It's unknown whether the liquor is being produced in Atlanta or in the North Georgia mountains.
The lead in illegally produced liquor comes from the manufacturing process, Morgan explained. Traditionally, old car radiators are used to condense the alcohol vapor rising from boiled fermented grain. Because lead solder is used to patch holes in radiators, the lead subsequently leaches into the alcohol.
Last year Grady treated some patients with elevated lead levels caused by moonshine. Their levels were in the 70-90 range, high enough to cause health problems but not lethal. The two most recent cases, however, had levels of 190 and 300.
"Those are enough to kill you," Morgan said.
The patients came to the emergency room with seizures, a hallmark of lead poisoning. Other common symptoms include abdominal pain, kidney problems, ulcers and anemia. Lead inhibits the body's ability to produce blood.
Aside from curious teenagers, those who regularly drink moonshine tend to be heavy drinkers, Morgan said. Because the symptoms of lead poisoning are similar to the symptoms of heavy drinking in general, however, it may be difficult to identify moonshine as the culprit in some casesunless the patient acknowledges having consumed it.
"I'm surprised that it's out there," Morgan said. "I didn't realize that moonshine was going to be a big problem. But people have been getting lead poisoning from it for years."