Also referred to as phosphorus necrosis of the jaw, phossy jaw results from inhaling fumes of white phosphorus. It is a painful condition of the jawbone that is typically marked by toothaches and gum swelling.
Did You Know?
Charles Sauria, a French chemist was the first to introduce white phosphorus as an active ingredient of matches, way back in 1830.
Phossy jaw is an occupational disease that was rampant in the 19th century and early 20th century among people working in the match industry. During that time, white phosphorus was commonly used for making matchsticks. They were commonly referred to as ‘strike anywhere matches’ as a matchbox was not required to ignite them. In short, these matches were extremely easy to ignite, which made them quite popular.
However, these phosphorus-based matches proved to be a health hazard, as workers involved in making them eventually started suffering from phossy jaw, a condition that affects the jawbones. It was observed that the workers were getting chronically exposed to this chemical as they were inhaling the fumes of white phosphorus while making the matches. White phosphorous turned to be toxic, as its inhalation led to bone disorders, the most common one being phossy jaw.
What is Phossy Jaw?
- Phossy jaw means degeneration of jawbones which has been attributed to the accumulation of phosphorus in the jaw due to its frequent inhalation.
- Resulting from chronic phosphorus poisoning, the condition in the initial stages causes dental pain which can be quite difficult to bear. In most cases, the lower jawbone was affected but there were instances wherein the patient developed this condition in the upper jaw.
- Apart from toothaches, the gum became red, swollen, and inflamed. As the condition progressed, eating and talking became extremely difficult. The affected jaw would get infected, leading to formation of pus.
- The abscessed jawbone would soon start decaying, giving an awful smell. The affected jaw would also swell, causing a deformed face. The pus of the infected bone tissue would break through the overlying surface of the skin and drain, further causing a foul odor. It is said that the infected bones even glowed in the dark, giving off a greenish-white halo effect.
- In those times, as such there were no medications to treat phossy jaw. Treatment involved surgically extracting the jawbone.
- In case of phossy jaw, the onset of symptoms was gradual and it took years to reach its final stage that was treated with surgical removal of the affected jaw. Facial disfigurement was the most common side effect of undergoing the surgery.
- Treatment if ignored, caused the infection to spread, eventually leading to multiple organ failure and subsequent death. Brain inflammation, pulmonary hemorrhage, and seizures are some of the health complications that have been associated with phossy jaw.
London Matchgirls’ Strike of 1888
- The Bryant and May match factory in London, witnessed a strike of unprecedented scale in 1888. The workforce that consisted of over 1400 women and girls, refused to start work unless and until their demands were met.
- The match-workers were frustrated with the unhealthy working conditions as increasing numbers of workers were falling prey to health issues such as phossy jaw due to the exposure to white phosphorus. The workers were also unhappy about their long working hours and meager pay scales.
- This conflict between workers and the management of Bryant and May factory received wide publicity in London. As a result, the factory owners gave in to their demands and in 1901, the factory completely stopped the use of white phosphorus for making matches.
- Also in 1908, the British House of Commons enforced an Act outlawing the use of phosphorus-based matches.
Soon, other countries including the United States in 1912 prohibited the use of white phosphorus in making matches. Therefore due to strict implementation of good hygiene practices, phossy jaw, a typical case of white phosphorus poisoning, no longer exists.