TWO North-East firefighters were taken to hospital after they inhaled toxic fumes from a chemical fire at a notorious fly-tipping spot.

Fire crews were called to what they thought was a rubbish fire at Phoenix Sidings, Stockton, on Wednesday night then noticed an unusual smell as they tackled the blaze.

On closer examination, they discovered the charred remains of a plastic chemical container and about six similar containers nearby.

Fearing an explosion, they called for back-up and were joined by another 22 officers in gas-type protection suits and masks, as well as a team from the Environment Agency.

In an operation lasting about three hours, the team used sand and shovels to clear up the toxic phosphoric acid and deluged the fire with gallons of water.

They placed the remaining drums, containing hydrochloric acid and caustic soda, in secure containers and safely disposed of them.

Two of the officers were taken to North Tees Hospital as a precaution, and were released shortly afterwards.

Station officer Bob Beech said the incident could have been much worse.

"It's like regular fly-tipping - only you don't expect to find toxic chemicals," he said.

"Someone had dumped them on the roadside where kids could have played amongst them.

"The water washing through could have got into the drains, so it could have had a big environmental impact. It was a highly irresponsible act."

An Environment Agency spokesman said the area was a cause for concern because of its seclusion.

"It's a site that's known to us. It's an awful expanse of waste ground, which means it is difficult to be seen when dumping things, so it's an obvious target for fly-tippers. I think a lot of people don't even realise fly-tipping is illegal."

The spokesman urged anyone with information on the incident, or any other case of fly- tipping, to ring 0800 807 060.

Stockton Borough Council's lead member for the environment, Councillor Barry Woodhouse, said: "We work closely with the Environment Agency to tackle fly-tipped waste and have a joint protocol on handling it.

"Wherever possible, we will clear waste from our own areas within 24 hours of hearing of it."

l Firefighters Mick Fellows, 53, and Shaun Williams, 40, were able to return to work after a check-up.