69 Ukrainians Poisoned by Toxic Gas

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 26, 2005

KIEV, Ukraine – The number of people treated for exposure to toxic smoke from a phosphorus fire more than tripled to 69 Wednesday, officials said a day after a train carrying the chemical derailed and caught fire.

About half those affected, including 19 children, were hospitalized for exposure to the smoke, said Ihor Krol, a spokesman for the Emergency Situations Ministry. He said their lives were not in danger.

Independent Channel 5 television, without citing sources, reported that 72 people were hospitalized, and some residents and experts questioned authorities’ claims that people in 14 affected villages near the city of Lviv were safe.

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The Nature Ministry said early Wednesday that concentrations of phosphorus residue over two villages, Anhelivka and Lisove, were 23 times higher than normal. Later in the day, however, the ministry said concentrations had decreased rapidly and were within the safety range.

“It has dispersed. We cannot explain processes in nature,” said a ministry spokesman who refused to give his name, citing ministry policy.

Zofia Kubrak, a chemistry and toxicology specialist at Lviv Medical University, contended that a lack of wind and rain made such a drastic decrease impossible.

Kubrak said some people in the Lviv region complained of discomfort in the throat and mouth, which she said were typical phosphorus poisoning symptoms.

But Krol said the health threat had dissipated. “The cloud of a toxic gas dispersed and there is no threat for people’s lives,” he said.

After the train crashed, Lviv residents were advised to stay inside and not to use water from wells, eat vegetables from their gardens or drink their cows’ milk. But Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk, who traveled to the area, said on television Wednesday that tests showed vegetables and well water were safe.

Maria Moskva, in the village of Ozhydiv, remained unsure. “We don’t wear gas masks, but just in case we locked our cow in a shed and won’t eat our apples or cucumbers,” she told Channel 5.

The train derailed near Lviv, near the Polish border, and 15 of its 58 cars overturned, Krol said. Six of the tankers caught fire and smoke from the burning phosphorous spread over 35 square miles. The highly toxic substance, which can catch fire spontaneously on contact with air at temperatures higher than 104 degrees, can cause liver damage.

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych pledged to punish anyone found responsible for the accident.

Concerns about the government’s response and openness to industrial accidents linger from the 1986 explosion and fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, then a Soviet republic. Moscow kept the world’s worst civilian nuclear accident under wraps for days and played down the disaster long afterward.

A service of the Associated Press(AP)