A burning look at P (phosphorus) and its history

I swear, I’m not obsessed with urine, but we do need to talk about P, and by that I mean, the element phosphorus. It’s been in the news lately, allegedly used as a chemical weapon against children and civilians in Syria.

The story of phosphorus begins, ironically, with urine. Urine was a well-used chemical in ancient days, staring possibly with the Romans. It’s s source of ammonia and phosphorus which can be used for cleaning, tanning leather, and fertilizing crops. It was used to make tooth whitener and gunpowder and in the dye industry.

It makes sense in a strange way, that urine, plentiful and golden, would be used in experiments and alchemist Henning Brand used it in his quest to create gold in his lab. In 1660 he boiled urine and heated it in a furnace with plenty of stirring. The 1,500 gallons of urine transformed not into gold, but into a glowing, waxy substance. Although he was not sure of a use for it, other chemists soon noted it could catch on fire and produced burns that were slow to heal.

Once something is discovered, it has to be used and even exploited. What does a good alchemist do with a new material? Makes it into a tonic. Phosphorous works in conjunction with calcium to form bones. It’s the backbone of DNA. We need phosphorus to live. Our bones, teeth, and brain contain much phosphorus. The tonics were various amounts of phosphorus in water, cod liver oil, and phosphorus salts in pills. Cures for tuberculosis and mental instability were reported. It was also known to be a poison in high doses and used as such for killing rats, spouses, unwanted children, and inducing abortion. It’s very soluble in alcohol and rum disguised its garlic smell and flavor. Symptoms of phosphorus poisoning include jaundice, vomiting, and thirst–common with liver failure. Phosphorus poisonings were popular through the 1950s. Phosphorus remains in the intestines and can be extracted during an autopsy and detected by its tell-tale glow.

Today the element in phosphate form (combined with oxygen) can be found in all sorts of products: chicken nuggets, hotdogs, processed and spreadable cheeses, instant puddings and sauces, refrigerated bakery products, and beverages. It occurs naturally in eggs, diary products, meat, and chocolate. I found it on the label of several products in my kitchen including kids’ cereal, evaporated milk, Velveeta mac and cheese, BelVita bars, canned clam chowder, and muffin mix from the Amish Store near Chariton. It’s used to adjust pH and enhance flavor.

Count Chocula, anyone?
Evaporated milk: Not just milk

Although miracle cures were reported, the efficacy of phosphate tonics was never proven in the past, but today, people consume too much phosphorus. The excess is damaging to our bones, kidneys, thyroid, and cardiovascular systems.

What about matches? Before the discovery of phosphorus, they were made of sulfur dipped sticks and were unreliable. The white phosphorus friction “strike anywhere” match was invented around 1830. It was a striking success thanks to a tip made from white phosphorus. The new matches were called congreves or more commonly lucifers. They were 20% white phosphorus, 30% potassium chlorate (an oxidant), 15% sulfur, 10% chalk, and 25% glue. Rumors were that battlefields were raided for bones of men and horses–a rich source of phosphorus. Match boxes were works of art. However, the toxicity of white phosphorus became horribly apparent. Workers in match factories began experiencing bone degradation and sores, especially in their jaws! The condition called Phossy jaw was understandably painful and irreversible. Click here to see and read more about phossy jaw. In the 1870, people ate matches to commit suicide. Lucifers caught on fire when stepped on. Archduchess Matilda might have burned to death due to a dropped match. Boxes of matches caught fire when shaken.

Heating white phosphorus converts it to red phosphorus. It’s much less toxic but can’t be ignited by striking anywhere. The red phosphorus is on the striking pad and the match head is a mixture of phosphates, ignitable materials, and wax.

Give humanity credit– the last use developed for white phosphorus was as a weapon. White phosphorus has been used in warfare only since WWI. It’s incendiary, meaning it catches on fire when it contacts air. (It must be stored under an air resistant material such as oil.) It creates billows of smoke. It burns. It burns to the bone. It’s poisonous. The disfiguring effects include lowered immunity and last long after the burns heal. Thus, it’s banned as a weapon. The trouble is, no one cares to enforce the ban.

Phosphorous is also used in fertilizers since it’s essential for plant growth. However, humans use way too much of it, causing algae growth in natural waters. Believe it or not, we are mining so much phosphorous for fertilizer that we are depleting natural sources. If we deplete our mineral sources, such as apatite, we might have to go back to grinding bones and urinating as sources of P.

White phosphorus hazards diamond–highly toxic and flammable.