MOSCOW — Authorities have declared a state of emergency in a Siberian city after at least 49 people died of alcohol poisoning after drinking a bath oil they hoped would give them the same buzz as booze.
An additional 15 people were in critical condition in hospitals in Irkutsk, Russia’s sixth-largest city, with a population of 1.1 million. Mayor Dmitry Berdnikov called for the state of emergency after meeting with local authorities, the Interfax news agency reported.
Interfax, citing prosecutor Alexander Semyonov, said the death toll had risen to at least 49.
The bath oil bottles were labeled as containing ethyl alcohol, the state-run news agency Tass reported, and were clearly marked with warnings that they were not meant to be consumed internally. The products, in fact, contained methyl alcohol and antifreeze, said Alexei Krupin, the head of the alcohol regulating agency for Siberia.
Russia’s top investigative agency has opened a criminal investigation of the deaths and the sale of goods not meeting safety requirements. Investigators said in a statement that they had detained two people suspected of distributing the bath oil and had confiscated more than 2,000 liters (about 500 gallons) of spirits, the Reuters news agency reported.
Many of the victims are residents of one neighborhood, Novo-Lenino, investigators said. Cheap perfume and facial toner containing alcohol are sold in the region without the kind of trading restrictions that are imposed on alcoholic drinks, Agence France-Presse reported, and those who buy them for drinking are often the most socially disadvantaged.
Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said the president has yet to draw any conclusions on whether the poisoning is connected to the economic well-being of this population, Interfax said.
“Undoubtedly, this is a terrible tragedy,” Peskov said. “Undoubtedly, this is a well-known set of problems. The president has been informed, and, without a doubt, this requires the closest attention and adoption of measures.”
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said in a government meeting that he hopes to consider banning products that lead to such high death tolls and that the country’s criminal code is being amended to toughen the punishment for people caught selling them, Reuters reported.
Poisonings with surrogate alcohol are a regular occurrence in Russia, the Associated Press reported, but the Irkutsk case was one of the deadliest such incidents in years. Homemade spirits and household products containing alcohol are popular throughout Russia as a cheap alternative to the standard brands. They are also blamed for a large number of alcohol-related deaths, according to recent studies.
Dangerous drinking patterns in Russia have led to high levels of alcohol mortality for centuries. But the alcohol-related deaths seem to have reached new extremes in post-Soviet years, according to a 2013 study published in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism. This probably is caused by a growing use of non-beverage alcohol containing high levels of ethanol and other toxic elements.
Higher levels of poverty are pushing people to drink more and to drink cheaper, poorer-quality alcohol that can often prove dangerous for health, according to the study.
A study published in the Lancet in 2014 asked 150,000 Russians how much vodka they drank, then followed them for up to a decade, during which 8,000 died. The study found that men who drank three or more bottles of vodka per week were about twice as likely to die prematurely than men who drank less than a bottle per week. According to the British researchers behind the study, 25 percent of all Russian men die before they turn 55, compared with 7 percent of men in the United Kingdom. Alcohol and tobacco consumption account for most of this difference.
“Russian death rates have fluctuated wildly over the past 30 years as alcohol restrictions and social stability varied under Presidents Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin, and the main thing driving these wild fluctuations in death was vodka,” said the study’s co-author, Sir Richard Peto of the University of Oxford in Britain.
Samantha Schmidt reported from Washington. Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.
More from Morning Mix