Biology

Phosphorus Part 2: Health Risks and Disadvantages

Part 1 of this article described the uses and advantages of the element phosphorus. However, there are also various health risks that come with using phosphorus in our lives. 

HEALTH RISKS of Phosphorus

1. Flammability

White phosphorus is extremely flammable, and spontaneously ignites in air. Thus, it is a fire hazard that must be handled with caution.

  • It can have a violent reaction with below substances: 
    • oxidants
    • halogens
    • nitrites
    • strong bases
    • metals

2. Toxicity

White phosphorus is extremely toxic with no antidote. Thus, direct contact, inhalation, or ingestion can be fatal.

  • Direct contact with skin may result in severe burns, liver, heart, or kidney damage 
  • Before death from exposure to white phosphorus, people often experience nausea or stomach cramps
  • Mostly happens when people accidentally swallow rat poison, as phosphorus is used as an ingredient.
  • When it ignites, it produces toxic fumes in the form of phosphorus oxides.

3. Excess Amount of Phosphates in Body

A buildup of phosphates in the body is detrimental to your health.

  • If the phosphate builds up in the body and binds to calcium: 
    • calcium levels decrease (weakens bones and teeth) 
    • blood vessels are narrowed (increases risk of heart disease and stroke)
  • High levels of blood phosphorus overwork the kidneys, causing damage and dysfunction
  • This can cause diarrhea and harden your organs/soft tissue
  • Can interfere with your body’s use of other minerals, like iron, magnesium, and zinc
  • Can also cause skin ulcers and lumps

4. Corrodes Teeth

Phosphoric acid, frequently added to soft drinks, harms the tooth enamel (which offers protection)

  • Oxidizes and thus harms the tooth enamel, due to its acidic and corrosive nature

5. Use in Methamphetamine

Phosphorus is used in the synthesis of methamphetamine (meth), a drug that stimulates the central nervous system. 

  • Red phosphorus is combined with iodine to produce hydriodic acid, which is then used in the production of meth
  • Extremely addictive high potential of being abused by addicts
  • Causes paranoia, hallucinations, delusions, violent behavior, muscle breakdown
  • Methamphetamine overdose can lead to brain damage, cardiogenic shock, or organ problems—such as kidney failure—caused by overheating

Ethics of Phosphorus

1. Use in Weapons

Phosphorus is used to make weapons, such as incendiary bombs, smoke bombs, and tracer bullets. 

  • Can cause injuries/death through burning, smoke inhalation, and oral ingestion

 Incendiary bombs made from white phosphorus were used during World War II, and other weapons made from phosphorus have also been used in recent conflicts such as in Iraq or Israel.

2. Use in Rat Poison

Red phosphorus is used to make rat poison

  • There is growing concern about the safety and ethics of such rodenticides, which have the possibility of accidental ingestion by household pets and children, potential health risks, and the ethical dilemma of killing animals through poison.

Environmental Impacts of Phosphorus

1. Accumulation in Water/Soil

White phosphorus enters the surface waters near factories in which it is used. 

The environment is exposed to large amounts of phosphorus as a result.

  • Because white phosphorus doesn’t react very quickly in water, it will accumulate in aquatic organisms’ bodies.
  • Phosphorus may remain buried for almost a thousand years in the deep soil and ocean

2. Disruption of Natural Cycle & Eutrophication

The natural phosphorus cycle is disrupted because of the constant addition of phosphates as a result of human activity.

  • Mainly caused by emissions from mining and cultivating
  • If phosphates are not removed properly when purifying water, it can lead to their spreading widely throughout bodies of water.
  • Increase in phosphorus concentration leads to eutrophication: as phosphate-dependent species, like algae, increase in number, they take up large quantities of oxygen and prevent sunlight in the water, making the water unlivable for other species or otherwise harming their habitat.

In summary, phosphorus negatively impacts health due to its flammability and toxicity, excess amounts’ effect on the body, and use in the synthesis of methamphetamine. It also raises ethical issues as it is used to produce weapons and rat poison. Finally, it has environmental risks as it can accumulate in the water and soil for a long time, human activity has increased the natural phosphorus concentration, and it contributes to the growth of harmful algae. 

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Works Cited

“WHITE PHOSPHORUS: Systemic Agent.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 12 May 2011, http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/ershdb/emergencyresponsecard_29750025.html.

“Phosphorus.” Lenntech, Lenntech B.V., http://www.lenntech.com/periodic/elements/p.htm.

Madell, Robin. “Phosphorus in Your Diet.” Healthline, Healthline Media, 14 Dec. 2015, http://www.healthline.com/health/phosphorus-in-diet.

“Methamphetamine.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 5 Sept. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Methamphetamine.

“Phosphorus.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 10 Sept. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phosphorus.

“Calcium and Phosphate Balance with Kidney Disease.” Kidney Health Australlia, Mar. 2017, kidney.org.au/cms_uploads/docs/calcium-and-phosphate-balance-with-kidney-disease–kidney-health-australia-fact-sheet.pdf.

“Phosphorus.” Mount Sinai Health System, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, http://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/supplement/phosphorus.

Dubois, Sirah. “Is Phosphorus in Soda Bad for You?” The Nest, 14 July 2016, woman.thenest.com/phosphorus-soda-bad-you-3328.html.

“White Phosphorus Munitions.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 21 Oct. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_phosphorus_munitions.

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