Following the incident, the factory's workers and residents of the nearby Bedouin town were evacuated.
"At about 11:45 am an explosion was heard at the Makhteshim-Agan factory. It was followed by emission of a gray cloud over the area. The factory's workers were ordered to enter reinforced rooms," a Ramat Hovav spokesman told Ynet.
Initial police investigation revealed that the factory's pesticide container exploded, sending a cloud of phosphoric acid – considered toxic and extremely hazardous – into the air.
Firefighters, along with emergency environmental protection crews, sent by the Environmental Protection Ministry, managed to contain the leak by neutralizing it with sand.
"This is one of the worst-case-scenarios we're prepared for," said Reshef Greshon Chlimie, the fire inspector sent to the site, adding the fire caused by the explosion had been put out, but hazardous materials were still leaking. The incident finally came to an end at around 2 pm.
"The leak is of raw phosphoric acid, used in pesticides. The entire area is in danger of it, since the smallest spark might set off another explosion. That's why we're working to neutralizing it with sand," the fire inspector added.
Injured evacuated (Photo: Anat Bereshkovsky)
The police issued further orders pushing local residents back at least 1 mile north of the area, and as a precaution, route 40 had been closed off completely.
Phosphoric acid, as professor Uzi Even, head of Tel Aviv University's Faculty of Exact Sciences' School of Chemistry, explained, is a heavy substance which affects the lungs.
Being a heavy substance, Even does not believe the toxic cloud would spread far, depending on the force of the blast, adding that as long as people stay indoors they should be safe.
Residents of the southern neighborhoods of Beersheba have not been called to take any action at this time.
Makhteshim's spokesman was not available for comment.
Moran Rada, Meital Zur and Tani Goldstein contributed to this report