ToxFAQsTM for Phosphine
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This fact sheet answers the most frequently asked health questions about phosphine. For more information, call the ATSDR Information Center at 1-800-232-4636. This fact sheet is one in a series of summaries about hazardous substances and their health effects. It is important you understand this information because this substance may harm you. The effects of exposure to any hazardous substance depend on the dose, the duration, how you are exposed, personal traits and habits, and whether other chemicals are present.
The general population may be exposed to very small amounts of phosphine in air, food or water. Workers who use this chemical may be exposed to higher levels. Exposure to phosphine can cause abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting. High levels can cause weakness, bronchitis, pulmonary edema, shortness of breath, convulsions, and death. Phosphine has been found in at least 7 of the 1,585 National Priorities List sites identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
What is phosphine?
Phosphine is a colorless, flammable,
and explosive gas at ambient temperature that has the odor
of garlic or decaying fish. Small amounts occur naturally
from the break down of organic matter. It is slightly soluble
Phosphine is used in semiconductor and
plastics industries, in the production of a flame retardant,
and as a pesticide in stored grain.
What happens to phosphine when it enters the environment?
- In the air, phosphine will exist solely as a gas. Phosphine
gas reacts with substances commonly found in the air. Half
of the phosphine in the air degrades in about 1 day. At
high concentrations, phosphine vapors may spontaneously
combust in air.
- Phosphine is expected to react with water and be broken
down into other products. Some of the phosphine that is
not broken down may evaporate into air.
- When released to soil, phosphine is broken down very quickly.
- Phosphine does not accumulate in the food chain.
How might I be exposed to phosphine?
- Phosphine breaks down rapidly in the environment so the
general population may only be exposed to small amounts
of this compound by inhaling air, drinking water and eating
- Since phosphine is used to kill insects and rodents in
stored grain and tobacco, workers who use this product may
be exposed to it. People who live near where it is being
used may also breathe in small amounts of it.
How can phosphine affect my health?
Inhalation is the most likely route of
exposure to phosphine. Early symptoms of acute phosphine intoxication
include pain in the diaphragm, nausea, vomiting, excitement,
and a phosphorus smell on the breath. Higher levels can cause
weakness, bronchitis, pulmonary edema, shortness of breath,
convulsions, and death. Some effects, such as pulmonary edema,
convulsions, and liver injury, may appear or continue to be
present days after an exposure.
Long-term exposure to very low levels
of phosphine can result in anemia, bronchitis, gastrointestinal
effects, and visual, speech and motor problems.
Liquid phosphine on your skin can cause
frostbite. Ingestion of metal phosphides results in release
of phosphine in your stomach which can cause nausea, vomiting,
abdominal pain, and diarrhea.
No information is available regarding
reproductive effects in humans exposed to phosphine gas. Phosphine
has not been shown to cause reproductive effects in laboratory
How likely is phosphine to cause cancer?
The EPA has determined that phosphine
is not classifiable as to its human carcinogenicity.
How can phosphine affect children?
Children appear to be affected by exposure
to phosphine in the same ways as adults. Accidental exposure
of children has resulted in vomiting, headache, fatigue, and
damage to the heart. In a fatal case, a 2-year-old child died
with congestive heart failure, pulmonary edema, congestion
on the membranes that surround the lungs, enlarged spleen,
and aspiration of the gastrointestinal contents.
We do not know if exposure to phosphine
will result in birth defects or other developmental effects
How can families reduce the risk of exposure to phosphine?
Most families will not be exposed to
significant levels of phosphine. However, consumption of food
contaminated with metal phosphide pesticide can produce phosphine
intoxication when the solid phosphide contacts acid in the
Phosphine and metal phosphides are used
to kill rats in areas used for grain storage, but should not
be used in family dwellings.
Always store pesticides in safe containers,
in a safe place out of the reach of children.
Is there a medical test to show whether I've been exposed to phosphine?
There are no specific blood or urine
tests for phosphine itself. Breakdown products of phosphine
can be measured in urine. If a severe exposure has occurred,
blood and urine analyses and other tests may show whether
the lungs and heart have been damaged. These tests would most
likely be performed in a hospital following severe exposure
Has the federal government made recommendations to
protect human health?
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration
(OSHA) sets a limit of 0.3 parts of phosphine per million
parts of workroom air (0.3 ppm) for an 8-hour work shift,
40 hour work week.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease
Registry (ATSDR). 2002. Managing Hazardous Materials Incidents.
Volume III - Medical Management Guidelines for Acute
Chemical Exposures: Phosphine. Atlanta,
GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health
Where can I get more information?
If you have questions or concerns, please contact your community or state health or environmental quality department or:
For more information, contact:
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Office of Innovation and Analytics, Toxicology Section
4770 Buford Highway
Chamblee, GA 30341-3717
Phone: 1-800-CDC-INFO 888-232-6348 (TTY)
Email: Contact CDC-INFO
ATSDR can also tell you the location of occupational and environmental health clinics. These clinics specialize in recognizing, evaluating, and treating illnesses resulting from exposure to hazardous substances.