As if the freezing weather and the credit crunch had not put enough of a blight on the New Year, there was an unexpected new woe for one community yesterday when police told them not to wash.

The warning was issued to residents of the Langley area of the West Midlands as a huge cloud of toxic phosphorous smoke headed for their homes after a fire at a chemical plant.

Residents, particularly those in high rise buildings, were told to stay indoors and close all windows and doors after the thick, low-hanging cloud - measuring 50ft by 400ft - was seen hovering ominously and heading south towards the M5.

A West Midlands Police spokesman said: 'Phosphorus reacts badly if it comes into contact with water.

'Therefore residents who may have come into contact with the chemical were urged to avoid having baths or showers.'

Phosphorous causes irritation to eyes, sneezing, throat soreness and shortness of breath, he added. 'Officers were visiting homes in the immediate area to reassure families and stressed that anyone experiencing any of the above symptoms should seek medical advice.'

Police and fire crews were called to the fire at Rhodia Consumer Specialities Ltd in Langley, near Birmingham, at 12.30pm yesterday.

The cause of the blaze was unknown and an investigation launched.

Three hours after the fire broke out, emergency services scaled down their alert. They said the cloud had been dispersed by the wind and any risk to health was greatly diminished.

A police source said last night: 'The people of Langley will be relieved to know they can now wash again.'