What is phosgene?
Phosgene is a chemical used to make plastics and pesticides. At room temperature (70°F), phosgene is a poisonous gas. With cooling and pressure, phosgene gas can be changed into a liquid so that it can be shipped and stored. When liquid phosgene is released, it quickly turns into a gas that stays close to the ground and spreads rapidly.
Phosgene gas may appear colorless or as a white to pale yellow cloud. At low levels, it has a pleasant odor of newly mown hay or green corn, but its odor may not be noticed by all people. At high levels, the odor may be strong and unpleasant.
Phosgene was used during World War I as a choking (pulmonary) agent. Among the chemicals used in the war, phosgene was responsible for the large majority of deaths.
How can someone come into contact with phosgene?
Phosgene is not found naturally in the environment. The risk for exposure depends on how close someone is to the place where the phosgene was released. Phosgene may be found in the following:
Phosgene as a weapon: Phosgene can be an “agent of opportunity.” This means that someone could explode the vehicle of transportation (truck, train) that is being used to ship the chemical, or destroy tanks that store the chemical. Phosgene would then be released into the air.
Please note: Just because you come into contact with phosgene does not mean you will get sick from it.
How can someone protect themselves from phosgene poisoning?
Leave the area where the phosgene was released and move to fresh air.
What happens if someone gets sick from phosgene?
People who come into contact with dangerous concentrations of phosgene may develop the following symptoms during or immediately after the exposure:
Skin contact can result in lesions similar to those from frostbite or burns.
Following exposure to high concentrations of phosgene, a person may develop fluid in the lungs within two to six hours.
Other effects that may appear up to 48 hours after contact, even if the person feels better or appears well, include the following:
The effects of phosgene will depend on the amount in the air and the length of time a person is exposed to the chemical. High level of phosgene in the air (more than 2 parts per million) are thought to be an immediate hazard to life and health. Low levels of phosgene in the air are less likely to cause serious health problems.
What is the treatment for phosgene?
If someone has swallowed phosgene, do not make the person vomit or give fluids to drink. Seek medical attention right away.
Is there a vaccine for phosgene poisoning?
No, there is no vaccine for phosgene poisoning.
What should be done if someone comes into contact with phosgene?
If you think that you or someone you know may have come into contact with phosgene, contact the local county health department right away. (Visit http://www.idph.state.il.us/local/alpha.htm for a listing of all county health departments in Illinois or check your local phone book.)
If you or someone you know is showing symptoms of phosgene poisoning, call your health care provider or the Illinois Poison Center right away. The toll-free number for the poison center is 1-800-222-1222.
Where can one get more information about phosgene?
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Illinois Department of Public Health
Illinois Poison Center