A Siberian city declared a state of emergency Monday after 41 people seeking cheap alcohol died from drinking bath essence containing methanol, a toxic substance used in anti-freeze.
The Russian Investigative Committee has launched a probe into the deaths caused by drinking a liquid labeled as hawthorn-scented bath essence, and has detained several people.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the deaths a "tragedy" that required "very close attention."
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev ordered his cabinet to "sort out" the problem of selling such alcoholic products not intended for drinking - often labeled as cosmetics - to impoverished alcoholics.
Medvedev called the widespread sale of such liquids through vending machines, which takes place in cities including Moscow, "an absolute disgrace."
Fifty-four people were taken to hospital in the Siberian city of Irkutsk about 4,200 kilometers (2,600 miles) from Moscow after consuming the toxic substance, investigators said.
Local prosecutor Stanislav Zubovsky told Russian agencies that 57 people were known to have consumed the liquid, 41 of whom have died, while the others are in a serious condition. The official death toll grew by 20 people over the course of a few hours on Monday.
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"This figure will grow" as authorities are still searching places where the essence could have been ingested, Zubovsky said, adding that it was sold for 40 rubles (65 US cents) for a 25 ml bottle. The victims were between 35 and 50 years old, authorities said.
Irkutsk mayor Dmitry Berdnikov imposed a state of emergency in the city, pledging to "uncover and punish the perpetrators" and inform the public to prevent any further poisoning, the City Hall said on its website.
Police uncovered a workshop producing the hawthorn-scented liquid as well as various brands of counterfeit vodka on the outskirts of Irkutsk, detaining its two owners. Five people suspected of selling the substance were also detained.
Authorities said the product contained methanol and carried a label warning that it was unsuitable for consumption, but the mixture was nonetheless "consumed like alcohol." Cheap perfumes and facial toners containing alcohol are sold without the same trading restrictions imposed on alcoholic drinks.
Those who buy them to drink are usually the most socially disadvantaged.
Searches were being conducted at markets where the deadly product was being sold, investigators said, and a total of 500 litres of the toxic liquid confiscated.
Homemade spirits and household products containing alcohol are popular throughout the former Soviet Union as a cheap alternative to standard brands but are also blamed for a large number of alcohol-related deaths.
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