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Elemental phosphorus is used for the production of matches, fireworks, rodenticides, and munitions. The more toxic form, white phosphorus, spontaneously combusts in air and has significant hepatic and renal toxicity when taken internally. The other common form, red phosphorus, has limited human toxicity. Although in many areas the prevalence of poisonings from phosphorus has markedly decreased, morbidity is high and treatment options remain limited.


Phosphorus is a nonmetallic element not naturally found in its elemental form; it was isolated from distilled urine by Hennig Brandt in 1669. White phosphorus has been used in munitions (mortar rounds, grenades, artillery shells, bombs) since World War I for its antipersonnel effect as well as its warning, incendiary, and smoke-producing properties. It is also used in fireworks made in countries other than the United States and China, in the production of matches, and for selected chemical synthetic processes (including some pesticides). White phosphorus was used extensively in the past as a rodenticide, but is no longer employed for this purpose in the United States. Because of its potential use for illicit drug manufacture, its sale is carefully monitored by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which limits its availability in the United States. Before modern regulation, it was used in scientifically unfounded remedies primarily because its phosphorescent and reactive qualities suggested potency. Its occasional use as a homicidal agent was limited by its glowing, smoking qualities leaving obvious clues. It remains a common method of suicide in some countries.


Phosphorus was used extensively at the beginning of the 20th century in millions of "strike anywhere" matches (lucifers). However, safety concerns with the matches and illnesses in the workers producing the matches prompted a shift from using the more dangerous white phosphorus in the match heads to substituting the safer red phosphorus in the strikers. Workers chronically exposed to white phosphorus developed "phossy jaw," an illness characterized by disfiguring osteonecrosis of the mandible along with multiple draining abscesses.


Phosphorus, atomic number 15, is a group 5A nonmetallic element sharing chemical properties with nitrogen (above) and arsenic (below) in the same periodic group. Elemental phosphorus can exist in several different allotropes (polymorphs); the two common forms considered here are red phosphorus and the highly reactive white phosphorus. The relatively nontoxic and nonreactive black form will not be considered further.


White phosphorus is a waxy whitish to yellow solid with a melting point of 44.1°C.26 Often a small amount of red phosphorus being present results in discoloration, explaining its other name, "yellow" phosphorus. The word phosphorus means light-bearer, which originates from its property of glowing when exposed to air, likely due to the formation of reactive luminescent phosphorus oxide species on its surface. It is insoluble in water and often stored under it; it will dissolve in carbon disulfide and other organic solvents.26 White phosphorus is very reactive, igniting spontaneously in air at approximately 34°C and oxidizing ...

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