Bath oil culprit in mass alcohol poisoning in Russia

A mass surrogate alcohol poisoning in Siberia, Russia, has left more than 40 people dead and at least 10 still in hospital.

Occurring around 2,600 miles east of Moscow in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, the mass poisoning resulted from the consumption of boyaryshnik, a bath oil made from hawthorn berry. Boyaryshnik has a high alcohol content and has gained popularity as an inexpensive alternative to conventional alcohol despite often having warnings against consumption printed on the label.

Authorities could not confirm whether the products linked to the mass poisoning were being advertised as cheap alcoholic substitutes for spirits such as vodka, although media reports suggest the bath oil had been doctored to contain methanol, used in anti-freeze, and methylated spirits.

Many of the victims, described by Russian media as within the poorer socio-economic groups, were admitted to hospital over the weekend but authorities claim more people with alcohol poisoning were being identified, not all of whom had sought medical attention.

The death toll is expected to rise.

The mayor of Irkutsk has declared a state of emergency and has temporarily banned the sale of industrial products containing alcohol.

Meanwhile, two people have been detained by police for allegedly distributing boyaryshnik as a surrogate alcohol in two stores, and it is understood a further five were arrested.

Further investigations are ongoing, authorities said in a statement. "Investigators and the police are conducting searches at markets where the liquid was first obtained. More than 100 points of sale have been identified."

Reports note that more than 2000 bottles equalling 500 litres of the surrogate product has so far been seized and it is understood that residential areas have been searched. A workshop that produced the bath oil was discovered alongside counterfeit vodka operations, reports claim.

Many Russians have increasingly turned to fake and surrogate alcohol that carry lower price tags because of the country's economic crisis.

In December last year, more than 10 people died in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk after drinking fake Jack Daniels, bought off the internet, that had been laced with methanol.

Experts believe an estimated 12 million Russians consume surrogate alcohol – including perfume, anti-freeze and window cleaner – as a cheap alternative to the real product.

As the issue has gained more attention, authorities have sought to crackdown on the illicit practice including efforts to restrict the sale of cosmetics and medical products as alcohol substitutes, improve sales monitoring of non-potable alcohol and clampdown on websites selling the illicit beverages. The Russian Investigative Committee has also called for a law change that equates the production and selling of fake alcohol with murder.

Following news of the deaths over the weekend, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev called for improved efforts to tackle the problem during a government meeting, even a possible ban on the surrogate products. "I want to draw attention of all those present to a very difficult problem that exists with the sale of all kinds of alcohol-containing substances, and the tragedy that took place in Irkutsk. Persons who are engaged in the sale of such products, especially if it occurs semi-legally, must be held accountable."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters: "It is a terrible tragedy. This type of problem is well known and the president has been informed. Measures must be taken."

Meanwhile, Alexei Navalny, opposition politician and challenger to Vladimir Putin's presidency in 2018, told Reuters the problem with surrogate alcohol in Russia was widespread, blaming poverty and corruption. He claimed the products kill more people every year than terrorist attacks.

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