2016 Irkutsk mass methanol poisoning

In December 2016, 77 people died in a mass methanol poisoning in Irkutsk, one of the largest cities in Siberia, Russia. [1] The poisoning was precipitated by drinking counterfeit " surrogate alcohol" [a], which was actually scented bath lotion that was mislabeled as containing ethanol.

Causes

The bath lotion was purchased as a drink because of its low price amid extreme economic conditions; although the bottles are typically half the size of traditional vodka, their alcohol content can be twice as high or more. Surrogate alcohol like the lotion is also typically available at any time of the night, thanks to vending machines. [2] Purchases of these products have been on the rise in recent years as Russia's economy has suffered from low oil prices and international sanctions put into place during the Ukrainian crisis. [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. [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." [3]

The lotion was mixed 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] [3] [6]—specifically, "93 percent of ethyl alcohol, hawthorn extract, lemon oil, diethyl phthalate and glycerol". [7] According to early reports, a total of 57 people were hospitalized, with 49 dying. [5] [3] The victims were described as being poor residents of the Novo-Lenino neighborhood in Irkutsk, all between the ages of 35 and 50. [6] [8] Subsequent reports increased the number affected: first to 107, with 62 deaths, [9] [10] and later to 77, [2] and finally down to 74. The other three had drank too much ethyl alcohol. [11]

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