Making matches the hard way

Phossy jaw, formally phosphorus necrosis of the jaw, is an occupational disease of those who work with white phosphorus, also known as yellow phosphorus, without proper safeguards. It was most commonly seen in workers in the match industry in the 19th and early 20th century. Modern occupational hygiene practices have eliminated the working conditions which caused this disease.

Symptoms and treatment

Those with phossy jaw would begin suffering painful toothaches and swelling of the gums. Over time, the jaw bone would begin to abscess. Affected bones would glow a greenish-white colour in the dark.[1][2] It also caused serious brain damage. Surgical removal of the afflicted jaw bones could save the patient; otherwise, death from organ failure would follow. The disease was extremely painful and disfiguring to the patient, with dying bone tissue rotting away accompanied by a foul-smelling discharge.

Match industry

White phosphorus was the active ingredient of most matches from the 1840s to the 1910s and exposure to the vapour from this caused a deposition of phosphorus in the jaw bones[3] of workers in the industry. Concern over phossy jaw contributed to the London matchgirls strike of 1888, and although this strike did not end the use of white phosphorus, William Booth and The Salvation Army opened a match-making factory in 1891 which used the much safer, though more expensive, red phosphorus.[4] The Salvation Army also campaigned with local retailers to get them to sell only red phosphorus matches.[4]

However it was not until the use of white phosphorus was prohibited by the international Berne Convention in 1906, and these provisions were implemented in national laws over the next few years, that industrial use ceased.[5]