Hundreds of people in Iraq were exposed to toxic gases after a sulphur plant was set on fire during a continuing fight with the Islamic State.
The United States military says IS fighters set fire to the plant, filled with noxious chemicals, before fleeing as pro-government forces advanced on their Mosul stronghold.
The sulphur dioxide released into the air is toxic when inhaled or when it comes into contact with the skin or eyes. It can cause irritation to the nose and throat, and exposure to high concentrations causes nausea, vomiting, stomach pain and corrosive damage to the lungs.
Contact with the skin causes stinging pain, redness of skin and blisters, while contact with the eyes causes watering and sometimes blindness.
US soldiers at a base near Mosul wore gas masks as the toxic smoke was blown towards them.
Reuters reports that at least another 1,000 people are being treated for breathing problems related to the gases.
Iraqi commander Qusay Hamid Kadhem says two civilians have already died from exposure and many others are injured.
At the same time Iraqi government forces have entered the town of Qaraqosh, just 32 kilometers south of Mosul, the capital of the IS. Qaraqosh, once Iraq’s largest Christian town, is now devoid of life and filled with landmines.
IS militants have been heavily utilizing suicide bombers in the conflict, driving cars filled with explosives right into government forces.
Qayyarah, where the gas plant went aflame, is the main US hub for supporting the Iraqi government forces in taking Mosul back from the militants. The plant is expected to burn for quite some time.
“The winds have actually shifted south, so, as a precautionary measure, the troops at Qayyarah West have donned their personal protective equipment — continuing their operations at this point in time,” an anonymous official told Reuters.
A similar fire in 2003 continued for weeks, causing huge amounts of respiratory problems for people in the local communities.
The battle for Mosul continues to intensify as anti-IS forces advance on the city. Reports indicate that the IS was bringing civilians from surrounding villages into the city, possibly for use as human shields.
The Sunni and Shia divide of Islam has coloured the responses of the local international community to the crisis.
The US Secretary of Defence Ash Carter was in talks last week with Turkish leaders about how they may play a part in liberating Mosul.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi responded saying, “I know that the Turks want to participate, we tell them thank you, this is something the Iraqis will handle. If help is needed, we will ask for it from Turkey or from other regional countries.”
The presence of Turkish military in training Iraqi forces has already drawn protests among Baghdad’s more radical Shia groups.
Meanwhile the US presence in Iraq continues to expand, with over 4,800 troops currently deployed and at least 100 special forces within Iraqi units.