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Am J Emerg Med. 2008 Oct;26(8):974.e3-5. doi: 10.1016/j.ajem.2008.03.011.

Not all that glistens is gold: civilian white phosphorus burn injuries.

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Trauma and Orthopaedic Surgery, Emergency Department, Ernst-Moritz-Arndt-University Greifswald, Sauerbruchstrasse, 17475 Greifswald, Germany.


White phosphorus is an incendiary agent used in particular types of ammunition. Exposure to phosphorus-containing compounds may cause severe burn injuries. Systemic effects may be fatal for the casualty even though only a small surface of the body is burned. We report 4 cases of white phosphorus burn injuries due to an exceptional accident mechanism. All casualties were holidaymakers in a coastal area at the Baltic Sea and confused white phosphorus ammunition residues with amber on a beachwalk. The supposed treasure was taken into the pants pocket. The phosphorus substances ignited spontaneously when they dried because of the body heat. Injury patterns combined simultaneous full thickness burn injuries of both hands with a burn injury of one thigh or the abdominal region. The acute treatment and the controversy surrounding decontamination of such patients are discussed. In addition, pathology of tissue damage and systemic injury are elucidated.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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