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began with toothache and swelling
of the gums and jaw. The lower jaw was more commonly affected but
sometime the upper jaw also was attacked. Abscesses formed in the jaw
bone(s), destroying them and draining a fetid discharge that offended
those around the victim while gradually disfiguring him/her. If the
patient was to survive the only treatment was a disfiguring operation
to remove the jaw bone.
Those most quickly affected were the workers who dipped the sticks into the phosphorus paste. Direct contact with the phosphorus paste may have contributed but the dipping rooms of these factories often were poorly ventilated and filled with dense vapor. But the workers, often children, who dried the matches, ejected them from the drying racks and those who packed the finished product eventually also developed the disease. The condition might develop slowly over years but in its final phase would run a course of 6-18 months and end with general debility, then "inflammation of the brain", convulsions and hemorrhage from the lungs.
The saddest part of the whole story is that it all need not have happened! It was long known that the other form of phosphorus, red phosphorus, worked just as well in matches as white phosphorus. However, plentiful cheap labor, the absence of industrial health regulations and a profit-seeking mentality did not encourage the manufacturers to change to red phosphorus. The same problem existed in many other countries including the USA. It took compulsion by laws brought in around 1912 in all affected countries that eliminated the problem in one stroke.
1 "Through Poor Flanders" ('Door Arm Vlaanderen') by Augustus De Wijne, Gent, 1903. Kindly provided by Prof. Paul Depréz <email@example.com>.
2 "Phosphorus Necrosis of the Jaw: Phossy Jaw" by AE Miles, British Dental Journal 1972, Vol 133: 203-6.