International inquiry as wine kills Briton

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The Independent Online
STEVE BOGGAN and

VERONICA CLARK

Interpol is investigating the death of a British woman who collapsed in Cairo after drinking wine thought to have been laced with methylated spirits.

Holidaymakers were yesterday warned to avoid cheap Egyptian bottles in what could turn out to be the most serious drinks scare since 1986, when 23 Italians died after drinking adulterated wine.

Charlotte Common, 55, died on 9 January, almost a week after being airlifted to hospital in Newcastle. Mrs Common, from Sunderland, had been on holiday with two female friends over Christmas and New Year. The last time she contacted her family by phone, she said: "I've bought some wine for my friends, but they won't drink it."

After taking a few glasses, she became ill, collapsed and was taken to hospital in Cairo, but she never regained consciousness. A post-mortem examination revealed that she had died from methanol poisoning, the same cause of death attributed to the Italian victims after methylic alcohol was added to a wine-like drink to make it alcoholic without the fermentation process.

"A very small amount of methanol is naturally present in wine, but nowhere near enough to do anyone any harm," said David Wrigley, head of education for the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. "I am afraid the precedent for what seems to have happened is the scandal in Italy in the 1980s. For some unscrupulous people, it is cheaper to add methanol than to go through the process of crushing and fermenting grapes.

"The main reason for doing this is to push prices down, so for the time being I would advise people visiting Egypt to avoid suspiciously cheap wine. It would be sensible to read up on the local wine to find out which vineyards are reputable and then stick to those."

Mrs Common's sons, Gregg, Stephen and Michael, are awaiting the results of the Interpol inquiry."Someone, somewhere, is responsible for my mother's death," said Gregg, 34. "We must find out what happened there. We don't want to take a law suit out against anyone, we just need to know the truth. Other tourists travelling to Egypt should know they too may be risking their lives drinking the local wine. It has been a nightmare for our family - we don't want anyone else to go through this."

Police in Northumbria said they had contacted Interpol and the British Embassy in Cairo but they did not know whether a supermarket owner who sold the wine to Mrs Common had been questioned.

No one was available for comment at the Egyptian Embassy yesterday because of the observance of Ramadan.

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