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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Silvery-Black Powder Packs a Punch

MTPotassium permanganate, pictured in water, is explosive when mixed with glycerol.
When dry, it's a silvery-black crystalline powder; dissolved in water, it turns a rich magenta. Almost every Russian home has a bottle or two to disinfect cuts, bathe babies or keep away garden pests. With a little research and imagination, it can be used to cook up homemade narcotics, booze and small explosives.

It is the potential weapons application of the substance, potassium permanganate, that apparently has raised concerns in Moscow in the aftermath of the October theater siege, when explosives-carrying Chechens took 800 people hostage.

City heath officials this month slapped restrictions on sales of margantsovka, as the substance is popularly known, to three vials per person at drugstores.

A Moscow health committee official said the restrictions were introduced in 1999 but drugstores were only ordered to rigidly enforce them this month.

Drugstores confirmed that they are not allowed to sell more than 9 grams, which fills three vials, to any single customer, but some said they were not necessarily following the health committee's instructions to the letter.

"Margantsovka is on the list of explosive substances," said a pharmacist at a 36.6 drugstore on Novy Arbat, who said the health committee's instruction linked the restriction to the explosive nature of potassium permanganate.

"But in some cases we can sell as many as five bottles, but you have to explain how you are going to use it," she said on condition of anonymity. "Some people buy it for their gardens to kill pests."

Potassium permanganate, which lost many of its practical household applications years ago, becomes explosive when mixed with compounds such as aluminum powder, glycerol or acetone.

A favorite recreational pastime for some schoolchildren is to combine potassium permanganate with glycerol to set off small explosions, which often result in burns, said Valery Petrenko, a doctor at a clinic in southeastern Moscow.

A pharmacist at a ICN drugstore on Leningradsky Prospekt said she could not recall a customer interested in buying more than a couple of vials at a time.

"For home use, one bottle can last a decade," pharmacist Nina Karpunina said.

Worries about soaring drug abuse might also play a factor in the crackdown on potassium permanganate sales.

The number of drug addicts in the country has shot up to an estimated 3 million over the past decade, after officially being a practically nonexistent problem in Soviet times.

Potassium permanganate is combined with medications containing otherwise toxic substances such as ephedrine and pervitine to produce synthetic homemade drugs popularly known as jeff and vint.

One former drug addict said, however, that the city's restrictions would do little to curb drug use.

"It was a long time ago, but I remember that the minimum quantity, virtually a crystal or two, was enough to cook a dose," she said.