A CHEMICAL used as a weapon during the First World War escaped into the air from a factory.

Emergency services were alerted to the leak at the William Blythe plant, in Bridge Street, Church, after a man, who was making his way along the canal towpath, started to feel his eyes burning and was struggling to breathe.

The cyclist, who was in his 60s, needed hospital treatment and was kept in over night.

A major police and fire service operation, codenamed Merlin, was launched to investigate the leak and contain it if necessary.

It emerged the chemical that was leaking was stannic chloride, which is known for causing irritating, but non-deadly, dense smoke on contact with air.

A spokesman for Lancashire Fire and Rescue said: “We got called out at 11.15pm on Thursday after a man had complained burning eyes and was struggling to breathe.

“He said that as he was passing the building, there was a mist that he proceeded to walk through.

“At that point, his eyes started to burn.

“We thought it could possibly have been caused by the cleaning process in the property, but the crews continued to investigate.

“Operation Merlin was deployed, which meant we had to notify the local authority and the Environment Agency.

“It was then established that it was a leak of stannic chloride from the plant.

“The incident was a result of a quantity of fumes exiting the site.”

Police officers also attended the scene and they closed off the canal towpath.

The operation was stood down at 2am.

Insp Bob Eaton, from Lancashire Police’s eastern division, said: “This operation is in place in case anything comes out of the William Blythe plant.

“At first, we thought it was some sort of cleaning fluid, but it now looks to be something from the main factory.

“Nobody was evacuated.”

Graham Smith, operations director at William Blythe, said: “The incident involved a small chemical release during routine cleaning operations within one of our process plants.

“At the time of the incident, members of the site team followed standard operating procedures to minimise the effects and contain any materials on site.

“A full investigation is underway.

“The company will be co-operating fully with the appropriate agencies as required in the event of an external investigation.

“The safety, health and environmental performance at William Blythe remains the key priority for the company.”