At least 49 people in the Siberian city of Irkutsk have died after drinking berry-scented bath essence containing a toxic form of alcohol, methanol, authorities say.
“Of the 57 people known to have consumed the poisonous liquid, currently 49 of them have died,” Alexander Semenov of the regional prosecutor’s office said on Monday in comments carried by the Interfax news agency.
He expected that the death toll will rise as more instances are uncovered.
A citywide state of emergency was declared as the news sent shockwaves throughout the country, where illegally made moonshine is often sold on the cheap.
The newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda posted a photo of the hawthorn-scented bath essence bearing a label that it was composed of more than 90 per cent of the potable form of alcohol, ethanol, and would be “dangerous” if ingested.
Despite the warning, people drank the product like a regular alcoholic beverage, Russia’s federal Investigative Committee said in a statement.
It is a “terrible tragedy,” the Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters, adding that President Vladimir Putin had been informed.
“This problem demands the utmost of attention and requires that measures be undertaken,” Peskov said in comments carried by state news agency TASS.
Authorities have begun a crackdown on sales of the product and similar ones, opening a case on charges of negligent homicide.
More than 2000 litres of such products have been confiscated, the Investigative Committee said.
At least five people have been detained over the incident, TASS reported.
Surrogate alcohol to dull the pain of poverty
Use of counterfeit or surrogate alcohol is rife in Russia’s regions, where two years of economic pain have pushed more people below the poverty line.
Russian media reported that the victims were poor residents of Irkutsk, a city around 4000km east of Moscow.
The case underlines how hard up a large swathe of the population is despite Moscow’s growing profile and clout on the global stage.
Russia’s Investigative Committee sent a group of experienced investigators from Moscow, while Russian news agencies said the mayor of Irkutsk had declared a state of emergency and temporarily banned the sale of all liquids containing spirits not meant for human consumption.
Among liquids that have been used as a substitute for alcoholic drinks are perfume, after-shave, anti-freeze and window cleaner.
Alexei Navalny, a Kremlin critic who wants to challenge Vladimir Putin for the presidency in 2018, said the case had garnered wide attention because so many people had died at the same time.
Hundreds of people, he said, died unremarked every day in unrelated cases for the same reason.
“The problem …. for Russia and its national security is roughly a thousand times more important than Syria, Aleppo, Ukraine and Trump put together,” said Navalny, blaming poverty and corruption for the sale of such toxic surrogates.
“Every year … (such concoctions) kill more people than have been killed in terrorist attacks in Russia’s entire history.”
– with Andrew Osborn and Peter Hobson