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Moonshine Breaks From Backwoods

You don't have to travel to the backwoods of the rural South to find moonshine: Plenty is being brewed in the heart of Atlanta, and it's making people sick, according to a new study.

Moonshine — known as "corn liquor" — is made in inner-city stills and sold in "cornhouses," or makeshift bars, for $1.25 a shot or around $2.50 a pint, said Dr. Brent Morgan of Emory University.

University researchers conducted a survey at Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital after doctors noticed emergency room patients were turning up with lead poisoning from moonshine.

The survey, reported in the September issue of the Annals of Emergency Medicine, found that nearly 9 percent of emergency room patients said they had consumed moonshine in the last five years.

The 581 patients surveyed were at the hospital for various reasons. The hospital largely serves the poor.

The 9 percent figure was "surprisingly high," said Morgan, Emory's medical toxicology residency director. "You think it's maybe something that occurs in the north Georgia mountains or in Appalachia, but it's here."

In 2000, four adults at Grady Memorial were treated for moonshine-related lead poisoning. The patients had up to six times the lead levels that would warrant medical removal from the workplace under federal rules. One patient died.

Moonshine drinkers can be poisoned from lead in homemade whiskey, which often contains residue from lead soldering in stills or car radiators used in the alcohol extraction process.

Emory and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms analyzed 100 moonshine samples and found 10 percent carried lead levels that could result in poisoning. The alcohol content ranged from 8 percent to 60 percent.

"We still continue to see a couple (of cases) who have been poisoned with lead from drinking moonshine and it's still out here," Morgan said. "There's a whole culture that still exists.

"It's not only in the Southeast — moonshine is being consumed in other areas. Physicians need to be aware of this," he said.

Symptoms of lead poisoning include abdominal pain, anemia, renal failure and hypertension. It also can cause altered thinking, confusion and seizures, Morgan said.

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