HUNGARY

I wish it were the awarding of its 14th Nobel Prize that is putting my country in the news these days.

Instead, Hungary is back on the world stage because of a disastrous chemical spill. An avalanche of a highly alkaline mud that could fill 440 Olympic-sized swimming pools has broken through the shoddy containment walls at an aluminum plant not far from the Lake Balaton region. As a result, nine people have died and 250 were injured. Wild and farm animals have perished, and lands and little summer gardens that were the villagers' food and staple for winter have been ravished.

The 16th century castle in Devecser has surely seen a lot but now looks over hundreds of homes doomed to demolition. Kolontar, the village right under the alumina pond has even been compared to Chernobyl, the infamous home of a nuclear power plant disaster in Ukraine in 1986.

But a comparison of this sort only adds more damage to the grief: The red mud, as bad as it looks, is not highly radioactive, which was the case with Chernobyl. What makes the red sludge dangerous is alkali, which can dissolve skin as water dissolves soap. Eating up shoes and rubber boots, alkali left villagers with second- and third-degree burns.

Unfortunately, Alkali is all too familiar to Hungarians.

“Heartbroken maids would drink [alkali-rich] laundry detergent in the 19th century,” Dr. Zoltan Komaromi, secretary of the Hungarian Medical Chamber, said. “Alkali dissolves the esophagus immediately so drinking it used to be a popular way of committing suicide.”