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Sources of Red Phosphorus

By Linda Ray

Red phosphorous is a crystalline, almost opaque reddish substance that is flammable and can explode when combined with other chemicals. Phosphorous is an element found in phosphate rock. Heating white phosphorous to 482 degrees F and exposing it to sunlight creates red phosphorous. It emits phosphine gas that is toxic when mixed with water and oxygen. It can ignite spontaneously or from a spark, heat or friction.

Natural Occurrences

Phosphate is a mineral in the earth's crust as well as a component of human and animal bone material. Fertile soil contains phosphorous, which also can be found on the ocean floor and in small amounts in granite.

Illegal Drugs

Red phosphorous is mixed with iodine and ephedrine to make illegal drugs. Red phosphorous is one of the main ingredients found in methamphetamine, report toxicologists at the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. The chemical combination is cooked under regulated heat or manufactured under what is called a cold method, which involves leaving the chemicals out in sunlight to make the interactions needed to for the drug. When mixed with iodine crystals, red phosphorous can ignite.

Commercial Uses

Red phosphorous can be found on the striking plate on matchbooks. Fireworks manufacturers use it to make pyrotechnics, and it is found in the igniting source. Other commercial sources of red phosphorous include certain mice and rat poisons, various fertilizers and pesticides. Flame retardants often contain red phosphorous in the coatings used to protect certain polymers. Red phosphorous is also used in smoke bombs and tracer bullets.


Sources of red phosphorous, considered a federal hazardous air pollutant, are emitted from some manufacturing plants. Companies that make phosphoric acid, metallic phosphides, phosphor bronze and other phosphorous compounds use the element. It's a source of contamination from producers of semiconductors that use it as an additive. Emissions of red phosphorous compounds often are found near electrical services companies, sanitary services and makers of petroleum products.

Health Hazard

Phosphorous is extremely toxic to humans. In addition to its extreme igniting capabilities and ability to cause explosions and burns, red phosphorous is irritating to the eyes. Phosphorous is not carcinogenic, but acute overexposure to the mineral can cause damage to the cardiovascular and gastrointestinal systems and the liver and kidneys.

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