Embalming chemicals: For the dead or for the living?

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Crystal Meth (mutoriro, pills and marijuana.

BY Gaylord Munemo
While the community might blame unemployment and social distress as the root causes of substance abuse among the youth in Zimbabwe, one is left with a question as to how exactly are the economically disadvantaged youth able to buy some of the expensive drugs they are purportedly said to abuse.

While substances and drugs like crystal meth (mutoriro) and marijuana (mbanje) have been stereotypically associated with ghetto life, there are some overlooked substances that are abused in low density suburbs, and this is due to a gap in research fuelled by the  ghettorisation of substance abuse.

During the course of a research paper I was conducting on substance abuse among the so called uptown suburbs in Masvingo, I was astonished and equally frightened by the discovery that many substance abusers have access to various types of chemicals and drugs beyond the common mutoriro, BronCleer and marijuana. It got to my attention that embalming powder and fluid have since been trending among the ‘higher class’ substance abusers. For a small city like Masvingo, it came to me as a surprise that the trend could be of the magnitude discovered in the inquiry.

In an article published on February 22, 2015 by the Sunday News entitled Drug Dealers turn to Embalming Powder, it was reported that ‘drug peddlers in the country have reportedly formed a syndicate with employees at local morgues in the illicit sale of embalming compound which in turn is used by addicts as an intoxicating substance.

Subsequently, an article published by The Chronicle entitled The endless search for a new high in Bulawayo on March 28, 2017 reported that ‘It is not clear when it became a craze in Bulawayo, but in the last two years, it has tightened its grip on those that are looking for the levels of intoxication that normal strains of marijuana cannot deliver.’

The issue was said to be a state of emergency in the two articles, however, little has been done to control the distribution of embalming powder. This article serves as a follow-up to the previous articles and as an awareness to stakeholders in drug and substance abuse control. From a sample size of 50 substance abusers from the ‘uptown’ communities of Masvingo selected through snowbowling and in consideration to ethics and good conduct in academic research, nine respondents claimed to have used embalming powder for the past 60 days. This brought me to need to understand what embalming powder/fluid is, what are its effects, who are the consumers of the product and who are their suppliers?

Embalming chemicals are a variety of preservatives, sanitising and disinfectant agents, and additives used in modern embalming to temporarily prevent decomposition and restore a natural appearance for viewing a body after death.

The substance, which comes in both liquid and powder forms, is used in preserving corpses in mortuaries by making the body an unsuitable host for bacteria and other organisms, in the process slowing down decomposition.

Chemicals like formaldehyde, methanol, and ethanol are required to manufacture the compound  and they are extremely harmful and intoxicating compounds. Therefore, embalming chemicals are being misused for intoxicated reasons.

In an interview with Fox (not real name), he mentioned that he either mixes a small quantity of the powder with marijuana or dip crystal meth in the liquid and dry it before using it.

The bloke said has many ways of taking both the powder or the liquid and claimed that what matters the most is getting high and not the process.

The respondents claimed that they have local suppliers who have access to sources of the substances. They claimed that their suppliers do not mention their clear jobs, but have access to morgues. However, they complained that their suppliers require them to buy the chemicals in bulk which makes it expensive, this making the chemicals an exclusive substance for the elite. However, imperative to note that even the ghetto residents are also end consumers but they are a few of them.

Relevant stakeholders are thus supposed to engage in addiction assessments because the addicts claim and show that their dependency is increasing with time. Only two out of nine have had signs of adverse reaction but have since discovered means to acquire affinity. None of the respondents showed an sign to go ‘cold-turkey’ because the severity of the craving.

Addicts of this substance claim to have experiences of euphoria after consumption and they claim to enjoy the state that it gives them peace of mind and relaxation.

Embalming chemicals have psychoactive effects which can lead to the suspension of the mental faculty. This can result in violence, periodic bouts of madness and even hallucinations.

Using the substance as a mixture with other drugs and substances exacerbates the outcome and can cause serious health problems. Overlooking the proliferation of such a societal conundrum can result in uncalled-for results.

Let us remember that during the emergency of mutoriro, many stakeholders just thought it is a phase until it became one of the staple-drugs in the community.

Considering that the embalming chemicals have not yet reached the peak of becoming a serious cause of concern for many players in the substance abuse control discourse and arena, it is not only critical but wise to prevent the continuation of the problem.

The straight-edge who stay with people who mix embalming chemicals with other drugs have since reported cases of possible mood disorders, violence and confusion. Some users have since been taken for counselling, but the degree of recidivism is high enough because of the synergism conducted by the substance abusers.

This means that controlling the source of the substance is more imperative than mitigating the effects on the end user.

Therefore, recommended that the Medical Control Association of Zimbabwe (MCAZ) research more into the matter, particularly concerning the suppliers of these chemicals who happen to be working in morgues and those having access to the morgues.

The academia and professional researchers should also address the gap in research and support other stakeholders with information on the ground.

Law enforcement authorities should also give priority to the case and look more into these syndicates. Intervention strategies should be put in place to prevent illegal supply of the chemicals to the people and to mitigate the effects that they have on those who have already started using the chemicals.