The terrifyingly specific phenomenon that makes your jaw glow green

Did you know that working around a certain chemical can make your jaw glow green and have to be chopped off? Not your teeth. Not your bones. Not your head. Your jaw. Learn what happens when biochemistry gets terrifyingly specific.

Around the mid-1800s the first instances of "phossy jaw," cropped up. It wasn't called phossy jaw at first. It was just a terrible disease that seemed to afflict mostly those who worked in a factories that manufactured matches. It began as generalized pain in the jaw and swelling of the gums. Then abscesses would crop up along the jaw, and more and more bone would be exposed. The bone would glow in the dark. That got people's attention, but not as much as the people who had to have their jaws amputated in order to prevent infection from spreading to the rest of the body.

It didn't take long before researchers narrowed down the culprit for this particular ill - the new chemical known as yellow (now called white) phosphorus. Eventually, the manufacture of white phosphorus in everyday materials was stopped, and proper safety standards were put in the few places that still did use the chemical. But the horror of "phossy jaw" remained. The horror wasn't just due to the physical devastation that phosphorus caused, but to the element of the bizarre. If a chemical is inhaled it might damage the lungs. If it is touched it should poison the skin. If it enters the entire body, it might poison the whole body or work best in one tissue or organ. But how could it specifically single out the jawbone? Why, of all the places in the body, did it only show up there? If you had read, in a novel, about a poison that made the jaw bone glow, would you believe it?

Phosphorus has the ability to affect tissue this way because of the way bone is maintained in the body. Although it seems static and unchanging, bone is thinning, thickening, breaking and repairing all the time. Two major cells responsible for this are osteoclasts and osteoblasts. The osteoclasts are the cells that break down bone and, in a way, ingest it. The osteoblasts build it back up. The break down and build up of bone is crucial to keeping the tissue healthy. Phosphorus binds to bone. Osteoclasts break down that bone tissue and assimilate it. The chemical poisons them and they die, and so bone no longer gets broken down. Bone "turnover," or rejuvenation, stops. In some tissues, this turnover rate is naturally higher than others, and jaw, particularly the tissue around the teeth, has a high turnover rate. The osteoclasts get poisoned, the process stops, and the tissue sickens and dies in the most gruesome and bizarre way possible. Sometimes fiction doesn't hold a candle to life.

Image: Sebastian Ritter

Via RDH Magazine and NCBI.