Poisoning Russia's vodka?
When a surge of alcohol-related poisonings started popping up in huge numbers all across Russia in September/October, the mainstream media labeled it as an obvious reaction to a string of glitches newly enacted alcohol legislation introduced into the alcohol industry.
First it was a change in the type of excise labels and production guidelines for domestically produced hard liquor, then came bans on Moldovan and Georgian wine, which were, in turn, followed by a summer-long blockade on an all imported booze that resulted from a new alcohol tracking system that didn't work.
The explanation seemed simple, Russia's alcohol industry just couldn't keep up with such unpredictable regulation, the supply of alcohol dropped and drove up the price of booze all across the board -- from cheap vodka to premium wine. And everyone in Russia knows what happens when a regular, decent Russian can't get his daily dose of vodka. They either a) knowingly consume counterfeited vodka or b) start swallowing any industrial solvents they can get their hands on. The cause and effect is as clear as daylight to everyone, and here's a small sample of what occurred as a result over just a couple of days in late October:
27 people dead in a small town in the Irkutsk region from alcohol-related poisoning.
13 dead in Perm.
31 dead in Kirov.
16 dead in Pskov. Authorities declare a state of emergency.
And these kind of stats have been going on for nearly two months now, and aren't showing any sign of abating...
The mere idea that hard working Russians peasants all across the country were being driven to drink chemical solvents caused a national uproar. TV crews reported on it incessantly, morning news hosts went through step-by-step instruction on how to spot that fake booze. Russia's top bureaucrats rallied to the cause. And sure enough, on Putin's order, the shit immediately began rolling downhill.
German Gref, the minister of economics and trade, and his deputies got publicly chewed out for failing to prepare the alcohol industry for the alcohol laws that they themselves created. Government officials and Duma deputies seemed genuinely apologetic, so much so that both Boris Grizlov -- the head of United Russia -- and Sergey Mironov -- the chairman of the Federation Council of the RF -- undersigned a plan for the possible creation of a government vodka monopoly to rescue Russia from evil counterfeiters and unpredictable laws changes. Sold at cost, or about 60 rubles, the national vodka brand would be cheap-o and government approved to not make you go blind.
But not everyone believes the explanation for the poisonings is so clear-cut. The government's readiness to step in with a government monopoly is one big reason why Novaya Gazeta smelled a rat and decided to investigate. And what they found out was that the current spike in alcohol-related poisonings isn't purely caused by the consumption of industrial solvents -- as everyone is so eager to believe.
According to their investigation, many -- if not most -- of the new poison patients aren't showing difficulty breathing, loss of sight, nor abdominal cramps -- all classic telltale signs that someone was scarfing down industrial solvents. Instead, most of the victims are being diagnosed with a condition called toxic hepatitis, or inflammation of the liver caused by ingesting chemicals. The condition causes the liver to inflame and basically stop functioning, thereby continually spitting back all the bile your body produces into your bloodstream and re-circulating continuously. Among other things, this condition causes your skin and eyeballs to turn yellow and basically leads to a nice and slow and painful death for a majority of people.
The thing is, according to medical experts, the type of toxic hepatitis exhibited by most patients points to a much more toxic ,and slower acting type of poisoning not necessarily related to simply ingesting industrial solvents.
What's more, Novaya Gazeta found that it wasn't just the usual suspects -- the bums and the poor -- that're getting poisoned. People purchasing higher-end vodka, cognacs and nastoikas all around the country are coming down with toxic hepatitis just the same.
People all across Russia are buying completely different -- and seemingly legit -- booze are all coming down with the same sickness?
This points to a different sort of scenario, namely one in which a huge batch of ethanol -- otherwise known as the drinkable alcohol -- was contaminated and sold to manufacturers of hard alcohol products all across Russia. It's standard practice for booze manufacturers to use second-party alcohol to fortify or add to their own stock...
Once this connection started coming out, the government quietly revised its explanation for the poisoning epidemic. They singled out polyhexamethyleneguanidine hydrochloride -- a disinfecting chemical used in a cleaning agent called Biopag-D -- as the culprit behind the poisonings. But no attempt to track the source of the contaminated booze and nor the path of it's transmission was ever attempted.
Instead, according to NG, the government blamed two factories -- the Aleksandrovsky chemical plant and the Lobvinsky biochemical plant -- for producing the culprit chemical. But no connection between these two plants and possible sale of their product to alcohol producers was ever found.
Even so, the mere link between Biopag-D and toxic hepatitis is absurd, according to medical experts. For Biopag to make a toxic impact, it would have to be ingested in such large enough quantities as to change the taste and color of any alcohol. Basically, one would have to gulp down glass after glass of this stuff to induce the kind of effects seen around Russia.
The fact that two unknown zavods are taking the fall for an epidemic can only mean two things: 1) Someone needed to be blamed instantly and bureaucrats were too incompetent to carry out a real investigation, or 2) someone's hiding the source of the poisons for some ulterior motive.
And with the bill to establish a government monopoly over vodka to scheduled come out onto the Duma's floor any day now, you take your pick. After all, Russia's vodka industry earned only 10 billion dollars in 2004.
Who'd want to tap into that?