MOSCOW: The death toll from alcohol poisoning in a Siberian city has risen to at least 48 after the victims consumed a bath lotion, prompting local officials to introduce a state of emergency on Monday.
Responding to the tragedy in Irkutsk, the Russian government also called for tighter regulation of the alcohol market.
The sale of lotions and tinctures containing alcohol has been on the rise 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.
While local officials in Irkutsk introduced a state of emergency in a desperate bid to prevent more deaths, and went house-to-house in search for more victims, Russia's top investigative agency opened a probe into the incident and arrested several people suspected of involvement in the sales of the lotion.
Irkutsk's regional government said the victims had died of methanol poisoning after consuming the bath lotion. Officials said the bottles with the lotion were clearly marked with warnings that they weren't for internal use.
The death toll has been growing quickly since the weekend, and reached 48, local prosecutor Stanislav Zubovsky said, according to Russian news agencies. He said that nine others remained hospitalised in grave condition, and officials were checking apartments and other locations in search for more victims.
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.