Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Phossy Jaw

Match, Wood, Fire, Stick, Matchstick  The other day, I was rewatching one of the earlier seasons of "Call The Midwife", when one of the sisters made comment about watching a girl die as her bones disintegrated from inside out from making matchsticks.

Her comment had me checking the validity of the statement.  It is quite true.  "Phossy Jaw" is the English term used to refer to the effects on the body of the people who put phosphorus on the end of a piece of wood when producing matches.

The earliest matches were deadly to make and almost as bad to light.  The first self lighting matches didn't appear until 1805, when a Frenchman invented them by using a mixture of potassium chloride, sulfur, sugar, and rubber.  To light it, a person had to stick the match in sulfuric acid which produced a flame and chlorine dioxide, a very flammable gas.  Unfortunately, these were unstable and often exploded.

It wasn't until 1830, that another Frenchman managed to design a self lighting match using white phosphorus.  These could be lit anywhere, were easy and cheap to make, and became quite popular.  Consequently, hundreds of factories sprung up all across England.  Women and children worked 12 to 16 hours a day just dipping stick after stick in a phosphorus mixture before drying and cutting them to place in small boxes.

The workers were paid very little and over half were quite young.  The workers were crammed into dark, poorly ventilated factories and often got tuberculosis, rickets, and "Phossy Jaw".  Although phosphorus is needed by the human body, too much of it can be toxic. 

Breathing in the fumes could cause inflammation of the lungs and other lung diseases. In addition, they might have florescent vomit, bluish breath, or possibly glow around the mouth. The dust that hung in the factories, caused the buildings to glow and it coated workers so when they returned home at night they almost glowed in the dark.

Unfortunately, when the phosphorus made its way into a worker's body, it often settled in the jaw, preventing teeth from remaining healthy.  Eventually, infection set in and the jaw began designating. The first symptoms included toothaches, swollen gums, loose teeth, and abscesses surround the infections.   Then teeth fell out, bone became exposed as the gums receded and the bone glowed.  Eventually, the rotted tissue falls away and emits a horrible odor and the only solution was to amputate the jaw.

The condition usually appeared within 5 years of initial exposure.  At the time, society compared those suffering from this disease with those who contracted leprosy due to the fact both cause a physical disfigurement.  Although it was well known that the white phosphorus used in match making caused Phossy Jaw by the mid 19th century, the government did not outlaw it until 1910.

Check back tomorrow to learn about a similar event that happened in the United States.  Let me know what you think.

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