Albright’s toxic archives 15 # Phosphorus burns


These are the words issued in an Albright and Wilson propaganda video made some time in the early 1990’s, designed for its employees regarding safe handling techniques for this insidious chemical, forever linked to all of the activities and waste arisings associated with the Oldbury works.


It certainly appears that the company were keen to take charge of employee health as regards potential chronic poisoning via phossy jaw, though conned them into believing that this was somehow all linked to “bad teeth”.

But this post deals with the main risk associated with the chemical in that it burns like hell, melts away the flesh and then sets about the bones. There are several reasons why a phosphorus fire and burns associated with it are much, much worse than any other type.

  • It is difficult to put out as it keeps burning in air until there is none left.
  • It is a sticky substance that clings to anything
  • It spits violently when burning meaning that several areas of fire can occur
  • It burns for a long time , and even when seemingly extinguished, can restart again in contact with air
  • Not only is the chemical itself highly toxic but when burning, phosphorus pentoxide smoke and phosphoric acid in contact with water also poisons you. This is particularly the case in contact with the mucous membranes or the eyes.
  • It is lipophilic and therefore attracted to fatty tissues

Here’s a quick video which demonstrates some of this.

Some online sources also reveal patients presenting with white phosphorus burns, often associated with military activities. Of course we also know about the Albright and Wilson’s toxic legacy of their disastrous “AW bombs”- made in the millions at Oldbury.

This link provides detail on the stages of phosphorus burns and their effects.

“Phosphorus burns are typically severely painful, necrotic, and yellowish in colour with a characteristic smell of garlic. They are commonly full-thickness burns, resulting from chemical and thermal insults. Systemic toxicity manifests in 3 phases:

(1) In the first 8 hours, patient may experience gastrointestinal symptoms such as abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea;

(2) From 8 hours to day 3, patient may be asymptomatic;

(3) From day 4 to day 8, multiorgan failure and central nervous system dysfunction may result in death. Clinicians should also be wary of predictable complications such as hypocalcemia, hyperphosphatemia, and cardiac arrhythmia. Therefore, close monitoring of electrocardiogram and serum electrolytes are important.”

Another source reveals an individual who received burns to the scalp.

The Albright and Wilson corporate video shows an image of one unlucky employee that appears to have been showered in the substance, which I understand was from the 1980’s.

To demonstrate that this was not a one off, the following article appeared in The Birmingham Post on 18th December 1972, where the unfortunate individual received burns to the face, neck and buttocks. I am not aware of the long term issues that these two men may have faced.

With accidents like this and to prevent them from being sued, is probably the main reason why AW were so keen to discharge their duty of care by ramming home the PPE issues, as well as stating they provide things like baths and shower systems in the video if any white phosphorus gets onto their workforce; the chemical industry meets  John Haigh and Norman Bates.

Where’s rubber ducky?

But it is the military use of this destructive and unnatural chemical for which burns with white phosphorus are more commonly seen today. It is a chemical weapon by proxy, and those poor buggers on the ground where it has been dropped in the theatres of war do not get ppe or waiting baths.

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