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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

69 Ukrainians Poisoned by Toxic Cloud

KIEV -- The number of people treated for exposure to toxic smoke from a phosphorus fire in Ukraine more than tripled Wednesday, from 20 to 69, a day after a train loaded with the chemical derailed and caught fire.

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

The Nature Ministry, meanwhile, said in a statement that concentrations of phosphorus residue in the air over two of the region's 14 villages, Anhelivka and Lisove, remained 23 times higher than normal.

But Krol said the health threat had dissipated.

"The cloud of a toxic gas dispersed and there is no threat to people's lives," he said. In the immediate aftermath of the accident, residents of the Lviv region were advised to stay inside and not to use water from wells, eat vegetables from their gardens or drink the their cows' milk.

But Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk, who traveled to the area, said on television Wednesday that tests showed it was safe to eat vegetables and drink well water. Meanwhile, emergency workers continued to sprinkle contaminated land with soda and sand.

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych pledged to punish anyone found responsible for the accident and urged workers to do their best to clean up the crash site.

"We managed not to allow the worst to happen. Now the main task is to liquidate the consequences of the accident," Yanukovych told his Cabinet.

The accident touched nerves still raw more than two decades after the catastrophe at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, north of Kiev.

The train, traveling from Kazakhstan to Poland, derailed near the city of Lviv, not far from the Polish border, and 15 of its 58 cars overturned, Krol said. Six of the tankers caught fire and a cloud of smoke from the burning phosphorous spread over a 90-square-kilometer area.

Rescuers extinguished the fire in the highly toxic substance, which can catch fire spontaneously on contact with air at temperatures higher than 40 degrees Celsius. It can cause liver damage if consumed.

Of the 11,000 people living in the contaminated area, 815 were evacuated, Krol said. Media reports said other people left the villages amid health fears.

On independent Channel 5 television, an elderly woman and a middle-aged man in one of the affected villages -- neither identified -- complained that authorities had not told them what to do to protect themselves following the accident. "Doctors did not come to our village. I only saw advice about what to do on TV," the woman said.

Concerns about the government response linger from the 1986 explosion and fire at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine. Moscow kept the world's worst civilian nuclear accident under wraps for days and played down the disaster long afterward.

Kuzmuk, the deputy prime minister, on Tuesday compared the disaster to Chernobyl and said the consequences could not be predicted, though he later backtracked on his remark.

Transportation Minister Mykola Rudkovsky said a commission was working at the scene to determine the cause of the accident. State railway agency director Volodymyr Kozak said sabotage had been ruled out.