Public health fears loom as floods ebb

As the floodwaters that have devastated central Europe begin receding, the threat of an environmental and public health disaster loomed yesterday to compound the problems of emergency workers.

Czech officials said that a chemical plant, which released a cloud of poisonous chlorine gas when it was flooded last week, was still a threat. And across central Europe, the waters have disabled sewerage plants and left rotting animal carcasses, food and other waste that could allow disease to spread.

Germany's environment minister, Jürgen Trittin, was due to visit the stricken Spolana plant in Neratovice amid fears that it may be leaching dioxin and other pollutants into the Elbe, which flows across the Czech border into Germany.

Last week's leak of chlorine is said to have been too small to threaten health but doubts remain on safety standards there. A Czech police spokesman told Pravo newspaper: "Dangerous materials were there and it appears that they were not properly secured and there were problems with how they were registered."

The Spolana plant is only the most dramatic example of a more widespread threat caused by the disaster. With such a large industrial area flooded, chemical spills have become a common problem.

The rivers Elbe and Vltava, which broke their banks across the Czech Republic and Germany, are lined with factories dating back to the communist- era, when environmental standards were rarely a priority.

Wittenburg, in eastern Germany, hosts several chemical plants and, while officials say dangerous pollutants have been cleared, environmental groups fear a spill or water contamination. Nor are the fears limited to former eastern bloc areas. In Lauenburg, 25 miles from the port of Hamburg, two chemical plants have been evacuated as northern Germany braces itself for the flood.

The Czech government said 20,000 clean-up workers had been offered vaccinations against hepatitis. But officials in Prague and Berlin played down fears of epidemics such as hepatitis A and dysentery.

The historic city of Magdeburg escaped the worst when waters peaked there overnight but did not breach the sandbag defences built by volunteers. But in Lower Saxony, residents were still being moved and, in one area, water levels rose by 60cm (2ft) in 24 hours.