Conference article

Fires in Swedish Match Factories in the 1920s Caused by White Phosphorus-contaminated Red Phosphorus

Tomas Lundahl

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Published in: Proceedings from the Third International Disposal Conference; Karlskoga; Sweden; 10-11 November; 2003

Linköping Electronic Conference Proceedings 9:14, p. 65–81

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Published: 2003-11-07


ISSN: 1650-3686 (print), 1650-3740 (online)


Rediscovered documents reveal problems in the Swedish match industry due to contaminated red phosphorus in the 1920s.

Over the years; more than 150 match factories were established in Sweden. In the 1860s; the production of safety matches requiring red phosphorus in the friction composition began to soar. The cheaper phosphorus matches with white phosphorus in the head composition were also produced until the white phosphorus ban phased them out in the 1910s. In factory buildings where phosphorus matches were produced; fire accidents often occurred.

During the first world war; Sweden was blockaded by the Allies England and France; and could at the end of the war only import raw materials following the Swedish “Modus Vivendi agreement”. After the war; chemicals that could be imported were of poor quality. As to red phosphorus; the match industry had to learn how it should be purified.

In the spring of 1922; the problems caused by impure red phosphorus escalated; and whole consignments of red phosphorus batches had to be returned to the producer in Germany.

On the 30th of May 1922; Växjö Match factory burned down. To protect the small town from a devastating fire; over 1200 available personnel were put to work at night in order to fight the fire. The police investigation the next day could not conclude any reason for the outbreak of the fire. The day after; boxes with red phosphorus that had been moved to a safe place far away from the fire; ignited spontaneously.

On the 16th of June 1922; a head office memorandum was sent to the Swedish match factories urging them to hermetically solder those metal boxes that contained red phosphorus of poor quality and store them separately.

On the 24th of July 1922; one match factory reported on a test delivery of 500 kg of red phosphorus that it was contaminated with white phosphorus and therefore unlawful to use.


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