Burning or Oxidation
Ordinary phosphorus, while excellent as a fire-producing material, is dangerously poisonous, and those to whom the dipping of wooden strips into phosphorus is a daily occupation suffer with a terrible disease which usually attacks the teeth and bones of the jaw. The teeth rot and fall out, abscesses form, and bones and flesh begin to decay; the only way to prevent the spread of the disease is to remove the affected bone, and in some instances it has been necessary to remove the entire jaw. Then, too, matches made of yellow or white phosphorus ignite easily, and, when rubbed against any rough surface, are apt to take fire. Many destructive fires have been started by the accidental friction of such matches against rough surfaces.
For these reasons the introduction of the so-called safety match was an important event. When common phosphorus, in the dangerous and easily ignited form, is heated in a closed vessel to about 250° C., it gradually changes to a harmless red mass. The red phosphorus is not only harmless, but it is difficult to ignite, and, in order to be ignited by friction, must be rubbed on a surface rich in oxygen. The head of a safety match is coated with a mixture of glue and oxygen-containing compounds; the surface on which the match is to be rubbed is coated with a mixture of red phosphorus and glue, to which finely powdered glass is sometimes added in order to increase the friction. Unless the head of the match is rubbed on the prepared phosphorus coating, ignition does not occur, and accidental fires are avoided.
Various kinds of safety matches have been manufactured in the last few years, but they are somewhat more expensive than the ordinary form, and hence manufacturers are reluctant to substitute them for the cheaper matches. Some foreign countries, such as Switzerland, prohibit the sale of the dangerous type, and it is hoped that the United States will soon follow the lead of these countries in demanding the sale of safety matches only.