Dozens Dead in Siberia from Drinking Bath Oil: How Methanol Kills

A bottle of tincture
(Image credit: Wojmac | Shutterstock)

Nearly 50 people died recently in a Siberian city after they drank bath oil as a substitute for alcohol. But why was the substance so deadly?

Authorities in Irkutsk, the sixth-largest city in Russia, declared a state of emergency today (Dec. 19) after at least 49 people died from drinking the apparently mislabeled bath oil, according to the Washington Post. Another 15 people were hospitalized and are in critical condition.

The label on the bath oil said it contained ethanol, and people drank the product as a cheap alternative to alcohol, which is a common practice in Russia, the Post reported. However, authorities said that the bath oil product actually contained methanol — which is a chemical in antifreeze.

Methanol is harmful because of what happens when the body breaks it down. When people consume methanol, the body metabolizes it first into formaldehyde, and then into a compound called formic acid, which is highly toxic to cells, according to the American Academy of Clinical Toxicology. The breakdown of formic acid is slow, and so it can accumulate in the body.

Methanol poisoning can cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, breathing problems, dizziness, blindness and coma, according to the National Institutes of Health. As little as 1 tablespoon (15 milliliters) of methanol can kill a person, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. [7 Ways Alcohol Affects Your Health]

There are antidotes to reverse the effects of methanol, including fomepizole or ethanol, the NIH said on its website. But whether a person recovers after ingesting methanol depends on how much the individual swallowed and how soon he or she received medical care, the NIH said. In people who survive, blindness is common, the agency said.

A minute level of methanol is found in most alcoholic drinks, and such levels are safe. But if alcohol is not properly distilled, methanol levels can be dangerously high, according to a report on a case of methanol poisoning that the CDC issued earlier this year.

Methanol is colorless and smells like alcohol, and it is sometimes deliberately added to illegal alcohol drinks in order to strengthen them or make them stretch further, according to the National Health Service in the United Kingdom.

Police in Irkutsk said that they have found a workshop where the bath oil was being made, along with bootleg vodka, according to Reuters. Officials have confiscated about 500 liters of bath oil and other liquid from stores in the area.

Original article on Live Science.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.