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Toxic Spill in Ukraine Raises Alarms, Comparisons to Chernobyl

Following a poisonous chemical spill in Western Ukraine, which quickly drew comparisons to the blast at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in 1986, members of the Jewish community were taking few chances.

People panicked at first, said Boris Komsky, editor of the Shofar Jewish newspaper published in the city of Lvov, “and they are still worried now because they remember the reaction of the authorities to the Chernobyl disaster.”

Authorities tried to play down the scale of the spill on July 17, but later admitted that the concentration of noxious gases in the affected region was way above normal.

“Many people are seeking medical aid, others buy drugs,” Komsky said.

Hundreds of Ukrainians were evacuated from their homes, with nearly 150 treated for the effects of toxic fumes released when a freight train carrying highly toxic yellow phosphorus from Kazakhstan to Poland derailed near Lvov.

“People are concerned,” said Gennady Fraerman, a leader of the Jewish community in the town of Rovno, which borders the Lvov region where the accident happened. He said some Jews “took their children back from the homes of their parents in that region.”

Firefighters extinguished the burning freight train cars and authorities the day after the spill insisted the worst was over. But civilians remained unconvinced and feared they might not be told the whole truth about the accident, some Jews in the region said.

As they await a full report on the possible consequences of the accident, some Jewish organizations in Ukraine have taken precautions to help constituents who might be in more danger than they are being led to believe.

According to Josef Zissels, leader of the Ukrainian Va’ad, a Jewish umbrella group, some 60 Jewish children from the affected area were evacuated shortly after the accident to a Jewish summer camp near the town of Mukachevo, not far from the Ukrainian-Slovak border.

Yet, Zissels admitted, “we have no facts about the scale of the disaster and about its threat to other regions of Ukraine.”

On at least one level, many observers agreed, events in recent days mirrored the Chernobyl disaster: Official reports on the accident have often contradicted each other, causing suspicions that authorities are not disclosing the entire truth — or might not even know it themselves.

“I don’t have any concrete information about the concentration [of noxious substance] in the atmosphere, water, food and on vegetation,” said Isaac Trakhtenberg, director of the Laboratory of Toxicology at the Institute of Labor of the Ukrainian National Academy of Science, who is not directly involved in dealing with the accident’s consequences. “But the information about the toxic cloud makes a bad impression.”

Some experts say the most dangerous outcome could be if phosphorus contaminates water supplies.

Those who remained in the area immediately affected by the accident were advised to use gas masks, stay indoors and avoid using water from open sources or eating fruits and vegetables grown in their backyards.

The freight train that caused the catastrophe belonged to a Kazakh company. Fifteen of the train’s 58 cars overturned, six of which caught fire, officials said.

The toxic yellow cloud caused by the blaze covered an area of 35 square miles above 14 villages near Lvov.

The Jewish community in Lvov called on its members to follow the officials’ advice concerning personal safety and sanitary measures.

“We advised members of our community to take all recommended measures concerning foodstuffs, water and air,” said Rabbi Mordekhai Bold, chief rabbi of Lvov and Western Ukraine.

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