The name phosphorus comes from a Greek word meaning “bearer of light” and is commercially produced in two predominant forms—white and red phosphorus. In its white phosphorus (WP) structure, WP is a waxy substance that gives off a slight glow in air. In the late 1880’s a Berlin woman laced her husband’s soup with the chemical to secure an insurance settlement, but the crime was foiled when the husband’s friends noticed that the soup glowed when he stirred it.
White phosphorus is capable of igniting in air once its temperature reaches about 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius) and for that reason is used in fireworks, flares and weaponry. Red phosphorus is far more stable at room temperature and that form is used on match tips and also in pesticide formulations, such as rat and roach pastes. Red phosphorus can also be volatile at higher temperatures and can become explosive when used as an ingredient in backroom methamphetamine labs.
Most phosphorus poisonings these days are suicide attempts, but the chemical might make for an interesting weapon of murder. A lethal dose is said to be in the 50-65mg range and the road to death is two-fold. Initially, a victim will experience mild gastric distress that includes abdominal pain and nausea—general symptoms not specifically linked to lethal consequences. There is no specific antidote to phosphorus poisoning.
Those initial symptoms progress in about two to approximately six hours after ingestion, and these symptoms include gastrointestinal burning, vomiting and diarrhea. One of the more interesting telltale signs of phosphorus poisoning is a characteristic garlic odor to the victim’s breath and vomitus. Another interesting piece of evidence is a slight glow (phosphorescence) to the victim’s vomitus and feces that is termed “the smoking stool syndrome”.
Phosphorus is an interesting mineral that’s essential to human bone structure and is necessary for the storage and release of energy in human cells. However, what little we absorb from food goes a long way to maintain human health. More than that and the potential for murder exists.
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