MOSCOW — Authorities have declared a state of emergency in a Siberian city after at least 49 people died of alcohol poisoning after drinking a bath oil they hoped would give them the same buzz as liquor.
An additional 15 people were in critical condition in hospitals in Irkutsk, Russia’s sixth-largest city, with a population of 1.1 million. Mayor Dmitry Berdnikov called for the state of emergency after meeting with local authorities, the Interfax news agency reported.
Interfax, citing prosecutor Alexander Semyonov, said the death toll had risen to at least 49.
The bath oil bottles were labeled as containing ethyl alcohol, the state-run news agency Tass reported, and were clearly marked with warnings that they were not meant to be consumed internally.
The products, in fact, contained methyl alcohol and antifreeze, said Alexei Krupin, the head of the alcohol regulating agency for Siberia.
Russia’s top investigative agency has opened a criminal investigation of the deaths and the sale of goods not meeting safety requirements. Investigators said they had detained two people suspected of distributing the bath oil and had confiscated about 500 gallons of spirits, Reuters reported.
Many of the victims are residents of one neighborhood, Novo-Lenino, investigators said.
Cheap perfume and facial toner containing alcohol are sold in the region without the kind of trading restrictions that are imposed on alcoholic drinks, Agence France-Presse reported, and those who buy them for drinking are often the most socially disadvantaged.
Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said the president has yet to draw conclusions on whether the poisoning is connected to the economic well-being of this population, Interfax said.
‘‘Undoubtedly, this is a terrible tragedy,’’ Peskov said. ‘‘Undoubtedly, this is a well-known set of problems. The president has been informed, and, without a doubt, this requires the closest attention and adoption of measures.’’
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said in a government meeting that he hopes to consider banning products that lead to such high death tolls and that the country’s criminal code is being amended to toughen the punishment for people caught selling them, Reuters reported.
Poisonings with surrogate alcohol are a regular occurrence in Russia, but the Irkutsk case was one of the deadliest such incidents in years.
Homemade spirits and household products containing alcohol are popular throughout Russia as a cheap alternative to the standard brands. They are also blamed for a large number of alcohol-related deaths.
Dangerous drinking patterns in Russia have led to high levels of alcohol mortality for centuries. But the alcohol-related deaths seem to have reached new extremes in post-Soviet years, according to a 2013 study published in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism.
This probably is caused by a growing use of nonbeverage alcohol containing high levels of ethanol and other toxic elements.