Travel warning review after arak death

Michael Denton played for the Nedlands Rugby Club in Western Australia. Photo / Supplied
Michael Denton played for the Nedlands Rugby Club in Western Australia. Photo / Supplied

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade is to review its safe travel advice on the dangers of drinking arak following a coroner's findings linking the drink to the death of a former Dunedin man in Indonesia.

A travel advisory for Indonesia already contains a warning about the Balinese spirit, but that may be updated following the release this week of Otago Southland coroner David Crerar's findings on the death of Michael Denton in Bali in September last year.
Mr Crerar conducted the inquest after Mr Denton's body was repatriated to New Zealand from Indonesia.

Mr Denton, 30, died in Bali in his hotel room several hours after complaining of feeling unwell after having a drink at a Kuta bar.

He was in Bali with his rugby team for a tournament.

Pathology, toxicology and autopsy reports done in Indonesia formed part of Mr Crerar's evidence, as did a toxicology and autopsy report completed in New Zealand and an internet download detailing the content of, and possible side-effects of, arak.

His report said the Bali pathologist concluded Mr Denton died when he suffocated on his stomach's contents, but also mentioned some evidence that could be attributed to methanol intoxication.

Mr Crerar said his own inquiry was compromised by the inability of New Zealand police to obtain direct, first person statements and by the inability of ESR New Zealand and pathologists to obtain appropriate samples and other information needed in order for them to come to a definitive conclusion as to cause of death.

ESR forensic toxicologist Helen Poulson told him the Indonesian toxicology report, which detailed high levels of methanol and ethanol in Mr Denton's system, contained several inconsistencies which made the results difficult to interpret.

It was also unclear how much of the methanol and ethanol detected by New Zealand scientists in Mr Denton's body was due to the use of embalming fluid, in which both were used, to preserve his body for its return to New Zealand.

He said he was advised Mr Denton had not consumed a significant amount of alcohol because he had to play rugby the following day.

The evidence was Mr Denton had been drinking arak, but his drinking that night was only moderate and he returned to his hotel by himself.

However, if he was in the state of intoxication the Indonesian toxicological report suggested he was, he would not have been able to do manage that on his own, Mr Crerar said.

Notwithstanding the evidential difficulties, the coroner was satisfied the extremely high levels of methanol and ethanol in Mr Denton's body were more likely to have been created by the preservation processes rather than by digestion.

He was, however, persuaded the arak said to have been consumed by Mr Denton that night was so contaminated by methanol that the overall central depressant effects of alcohol and its component ethanol were exacerbated.

The caused Mr Denton to vomit and inhale his stomach's contents, as well as the fluid accumulation and severe congestion of the lungs reported by pathologists.

He recommended the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade publicise the dangers of arak, that it was known to contain or be contaminated by methanol, and that the effects of drinking methanol could be fatal.

A month after Mr Denton died, a warning about arak appeared on the ministry's safe travel website that contaminated arak could induce "severe illness".

A spokeswoman said yesterday the warning would be reviewed once a copy of the coroner's report was received.

Attempts to contact the Denton family last night were unsuccessful.

- Otago Daily Times

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