2016 Irkutsk mass methanol poisoning

The location of Irkutsk Oblast within Russia. The mass poisoning took place in the city of the same name, located near the oblast's southern border.

In December 2016, 74 people died in a mass methanol poisoning in Irkutsk, one of the largest cities in Siberia, Russia. The poisoning was precipitated by drinking counterfeit " surrogate alcohol", [a] which was actually scented bath lotion that was mislabeled as containing ethanol. Regulations on products being used as surrogate alcohol were tightened in the aftermath of the poisoning.

Causes

The bath lotion, or boyaryshnik, was purchased as a drink because of its low price amid extreme economic conditions; such liquids are not subject to the alcohol excise tax and other restrictions placed in recent years to help curb alcohol consumption in the country. [1] [2] Although the bottles are typically half the size of traditional vodka, their alcohol content can be twice as high or more (going up to 95% alcohol) and are often available at any time of the night, thanks to vending machines. [1] [3] These 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. [4]

Purchases of surrogate alcohol, which has existed for decades, had been on the rise as Russia's economy suffered from the Great Recession followed by depressed oil prices and international sanctions put into place during the Ukrainian crisis. [3] [5] [6] In particular, food prices approximately doubled in the two years prior to the poisoning, as as of 2017 approximately half of the Russian population was growing fruits and vegetables to supplement their diet. Moreover, the Irkutsk region's life expectancy is 67, 10 less than Moscow. [3] Russia's deputy prime minister remarked before this incident that such non-traditional alcohol made up 20% of the total alcohol consumed in the country, [7] a figure backed up by independent reporting, which noted that the total was still growing. [4] As such, alcohol poisonings in the country are not infrequent, but the death toll in this incident led the Associated Press to call it "unprecedented in its scale". [5]

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 the alcohol found in vodka and other alcoholic drinks, ethanol (ethyl alcohol, grain alcohol, CH3CH2OH). 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 [5] [8] [9]—specifically, "93 percent of ethyl alcohol, hawthorn extract, lemon oil, diethyl phthalate and glycerol". [10]

According to early reports, a total of 57 people were hospitalized, with 49 dying. [5] [8] The victims were described as being poor residents of the Novo-Lenino neighborhood in Irkutsk, all between the ages of 35 and 50. [9] [11] Subsequent reports increased the number affected: first to 55 deaths (with a total of 94 affected), [12] then 62 (with 107 affected), [13] [14] 77 (number of affected not given), [15] and finally down to 74. The other three had drank too much ethyl alcohol. [16] One problem in attempting to treat these patients was that fomepizole, a methanol antidote, is not certified for use in Russia and is therefore not available in the country's hospitals. [3]

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