It defies belief that white phosphorus appears to have been present in school science lessons well into the 1980’s at least. The amateur chemist teachers obviously believed it would be a good trick to make their class sit up and take interest in demonstrating the more spectacular chemical reactions- in this case allowing the P4 to be exposed to oxygen where it would spontaneously combust.
P 4 (s) + 5 O 2 (g) → P 4 O 10 (s)
But as this post shows, there appear to have been many laboratory disasters arising from these failed experiments, leaving question marks as to why this banned rat poison and toxic hazard was ever allowed anywhere near such reckless idiots (and by that I mean the teachers!). 😳
The Torbay Express and South Devon Echo reported that a school teacher had been hurt on 17th December 1959 in a “mishap”.
The master required hospital treatment after being burnt when cutting a piece of white phosphorus. The waxy solid nature of the material had also caused splinters which became infused with the surface , also spontaneously combusting. I think this shows poor handling technique on the part of this teacher, as it was quite preventable.
The following year, The Birmingham Daily Post of ironically 5th November, gave another account of a clumsy Wednesfield Grammar school teacher who had been burnt by P4.
Incredibly after he had been burnt by a piece of phosphorus, he had also been unaware that some carbon disulphide was in the same fume cupboard that he dropped the phosphorus into. This chemical dissolves white phosphorus , and then when exposed to air flames in a violent exothermic reaction. Having dropped the bottle of CS2 a fire started leading a a rapid evacuation of the classroom.
The 28th June Haywood Advertiser of 1963 told how a lab class assistant had been gassed by phosphorus petoxide. It required firemen with breathing apparatus to extinguish the fire. No explanation is given as to why someone with supposed chemical knowledge would attempt to put out a phosphorus fire with a water extinguisher!
Another careless educator was burned as reported again by The Torbay Express and South Devon Echo of 10th February 1972. Once again the p4 had been exposed to air, igniting before she could put it back in water. Professional attendance was again required to deal with the incident.
On Thursday 27 January 1977, The Newcastle Journal confirmed how 1000 school pupils had had to be evacuated after another phosphorus lesson gone wrong. A piece of phosphorus had been dropped on the floor, which resulted in a rapid evolving of toxic phosphorus pentoxide.
It is all very well congratulating teachers on an evacuation, but the statement about “treatment” by washing the skin with water after exposure to phosphorus pentoxide is absolutely laughable, and it is not attributed to any particular person. This is of course, the last thing that you would want to do, given that it would form phosphoric acid, causing more serious burns of the skin, as well as damage to the eyes!
Another 70’s caper took place at a school in the Kent and Sussex Courier area, as reported in the 3rd November edition of 1978.
A teacher and pupil were burnt when a jar of P4 had spilt onto a bench. The fact that the bench had to be removed to get rid of the piece of phosphorus shows how this chemical continues to burn through material when any oxygen is present. This is how it burns to the bone when people come into contact with it, and why phosphorus burns are some of the worst you can possibly get.
A local story from 19th October 1988 Sandwell Evening Mail tells how another teacher from Smethwick’s West park college was burnt by phosphorus, but by the misadventure of his pupils blowing it onto him when they used a fire extinguisher of C02. Perhaps a case of “To Sir, with glove” 😆
Fire station attendance was again needed, and perhaps a little advice for those who had taken part in this demonstration gone wrong!
These incidents remind me of the many mishaps associated with the AW bombs that Albright and Wilson manufactured for the hapless Home Guard. It seems odd to me that those leading these classroom lessons did not appear to have any damp cloth or bucket of sand at hand to deal with the incidents before they got out of hand and led to the fires and burns.
I think with all these repeated experiments that ended the wrong way, the pupils should have taken the lead and told their masters to refrain from showing off with phosphorus. Just take it as read that it catches fire when exposed to air, and is bloody dangerous!