2016 Irkutsk mass methanol poisoning
In December 2016, 78 people died in a mass methanol poisoning in Irkutsk, one of the largest cities in Siberia, Russia. Precipitated by drinking counterfeit surrogate alcohol, the death toll led the Associated Press news agency to call it "unprecedented in its scale".
While Russia is one of the highest consumers of alcohol per capita in the world, the use of non-traditional surrogate alcohols rapidly rose in the 2010s due to ongoing economic difficulties in Russia. With a price far below that of government-regulated vodka, surrogates reached an estimated height of twenty percent of the country's alcohol consumption by 2016. These products were often nearly pure alcohol that could be diluted to a rough approximation of vodka, and were frequently available at all hours via strategically placed vending machines. In the Irkutsk incident, the victims drank scented bath lotion that was mislabeled as containing drinkable ethanol.
In the aftermath of the poisoning, regulations on products being used as surrogate alcohols were tightened around the country. Politicians announced a temporary ban on non-food items with more than 25 percent alcohol, which was extended several times.
Causes and event
In the 2010s, Russia's economy suffered from a financial crisis, depressed oil prices, and international sanctions put into place during the Ukrainian crisis. With less disposable income to spend, citizens were forced to take drastic measures. In 2017, for instance, approximately half of the country's population was growing fruits and vegetables to supplement their diet, caused in part by a doubling in food prices in the preceding two years.
For alcohol, these citizens—already one of the highest consumers per capita in the world—turned to surrogates, a cheaper but unregulated segment of the alcohol market. Russia's deputy prime minister remarked that such non-traditional alcohol made up twenty percent of the total consumed in the country, a figure backed up by independent reporting from the Moscow Times, which noted that the total was still growing. Such a large consumption of unregulated alcohol led to a "regular occurrence" of alcohol poisonings, but the death toll in this single incident was far higher than the norm.
The hawthorn-scented bath lotion, or boyaryshnik, that caused the mass methanol poisoning was purchased as a drink because of its low price amid poor economic conditions—such liquids were not subject to the alcohol excise tax, which had been increased as part of an anti-alcohol effort in 2009, or other restrictions placed in recent years to help curb alcohol consumption in the country. Although the bottles are typically half the size of traditional vodka, their alcohol content is such that they can be diluted into a strength similar to vodka. Moreover, they were often available from vending machines at any time of the night, while government-regulated liquor could only be sold within legally defined hours. The machines were often deliberately placed near poorer areas of Russian cities, where the product would be appealing to those seeking a cheaper alternative to regular alcohol. "Everybody knew that it was not bath oil," one individual told The New York Times after the poisoning. "That label was just meant to fend off the inspectors."
The fatal batch of lotion involved in this mass poisoning was made with methanol (methyl alcohol, wood alcohol, CH3OH), which is poisonous to the central nervous system and other parts of the body. Methanol is cheaper than ethanol (ethyl alcohol, grain alcohol, CH3CH2OH), the alcohol found in vodka and other alcoholic drinks. The two alcohols are similar in many respects and cannot readily be distinguished. The contents differed from the labels on the bottles, which indicated that they contained ethanol—specifically, "93 percent of ethyl alcohol, hawthorn extract, lemon oil, diethyl phthalate and glycerol".
According to early reports, a total of 57 people were hospitalized, with 49 dying. The victims were described as being poor residents of the Novo-Lenino neighborhood in Irkutsk, all between the ages of 35 and 50. Subsequent reports increased the number affected: first to 55 deaths (with a total of 94 affected), then 62 (with 107 affected), 77 (number of affected not given), and finally down to 74. The other three had drank too much regular (ethyl) alcohol. A total of 123 people were hospitalized. About a third of them were found in their homes, having died before being able to call for an ambulance. Of the remainder, a problem in attempting to treat them was that fomepizole, a methanol antidote, is not certified for use in Russia and is therefore not available in the country's hospitals. Overall, the victims included a doctor, teachers, nurses, and drivers; The New York Times described the majority as holding "steady if low-paying jobs."
Twenty-three people involved in the production of the lotion were arrested by Russian authorities, many of which were local vendors who sold the product, with one senior regional government official for the greater Siberian region being charged with negligence. About 500 litres (130 US gal) of remaining counterfeit lotion were seized from the underground facility where it had been produced, and a few days later 13,500 litres (3,600 US gal) of methanol-containing liquid was seized from a warehouse in Irkutsk. A further five people were arrested in January 2017, charged with selling and publicizing surrogate alcohol.
After the incident, a spokesperson for Russian president Vladimir Putin called it a "terrible tragedy", blaming it on a failing of "supervisory bodies": "What happened in Irkutsk was a tremendous tragedy. Words fail me. Certainly this was an outrage because the inspectors and other agencies were supposed to prevent it, and didn't do so." Dmitry Medvedev, the prime minister, called for a ban on non-traditional alcoholic liquids like the bath lotion, stating that "it's an outrage, and we need to put an end to this". Days later, the Russian news agency Interfax reported that Putin planned to lower taxes on alcohol in an effort to curb the use of unsafe alcohol substitutes, requiring officials to present a plan by 31 March 2017.
On 22 December, Putin announced that regulations on products with more than 25 percent alcohol would be tightened, and punishments would be increased for those who break manufacturing and distribution laws related to them. In addition, deputy prime minister Alexander Khloponin publicly supported tightening access to "medications" like boyaryshnik through requiring pharmaceutical prescriptions.
On the following day, Medvedev ordered Russia's government agency devoted to consumer protection, Rospotrebnadzor, to ban all sales of non-food items with more than 25 percent alcohol. Their 30-day order came into effect on 26 December and was scheduled to run for one month before being extended for a further 60 days in January, March, and July; the restrictions did not cover perfumes and glass-cleaning products. Further restrictions were considered, with one top health official announcing that a state monopoly may be imposed on Russia's perfume and pharmaceutical industries. In the end, Russia amended its legal code to strengthen punishments for illegally producing and selling alcohol, banning the kind of alcoholic vending machines through which the Irkutsk bath lotion was sold, and prohibiting online advertisements of alcoholic retailers. The latter's legalization had been mooted prior to the poisoning.
Individuals interviewed by a New York Times reporter in February 2017 were skeptical that any measures would be successful in significantly impacting illegal alcohol sales, given that it was such a high percentage of the total market for alcohol. Still, Rospotrebnadzor announced at the end of January that the country had seen its first decline in monthly alcohol poisoning deaths in five years.
- List of methanol poisoning incidents
- Alcohol consumption in Russia
- Prohibition in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union
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