MOSCOW – The death toll from alcohol poisoning in a Siberian city has risen to at least 49 Monday after the victims consumed a counterfeit bath lotion containing deadly methanol.
Local officials in Irkutsk went house-to-house in search for more victims and introduced a state of emergency Monday, while the Russian government called for tighter regulation of the alcohol market.
The sale of lotions and tinctures containing alcohol has risen in recent years as Russia has plunged into recession under the impact of Western sanctions and a slide in oil prices. Poisonings caused by cheap surrogate alcohol are a regular occurrence, but the Irkutsk case was unprecedented in its scale.
Russia's top investigative agency opened a probe into the incident and arrested several people suspected of involvement in selling the lotion.
Officials found that the lotion contained deadly levels of methanol and antifreeze. Police have found an underground facility that made the counterfeit lotion, and seized 500 liters (132 gallons) of the substance at about 100 shops in Irkutsk, according to the Tass news agency.
Bottles with the lotion were clearly marked with warnings that they weren't for internal use but labels warned that the product contained ethyl alcohol rather than methanol, officials said.
The death toll has been growing quickly since the weekend, and reached 49, local prosecutor Alexander Semyonov said, according to the Interfax news agency. He said that eight others remained hospitalized in grave condition. Officials were checking apartments and other locations in search for more victims.
Authorities in other Russian regions also launched searches for alcohol surrogates.
President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the mass poisoning as a "terrible tragedy," adding that the president was being briefed about the situation.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told a Cabinet meeting that authorities need to quickly ban such substances, saying their makers have been increasingly competing with legal alcohol producers.
"It's an outrage, and we need to put an end to this," he said in televised remarks.