An unfortunate dog walker was left with severe burns after a shiny ‘pebble’ he picked up on a beach near Blyth, Northumberland turned out to be the chemical white phosphorus. Exposed to the air when it was placed in the man’s back pocket, the white phosphorus soon began to burn, igniting his jeans and lower back within seconds. A passerby was able to help him out of his clothes, although the chemical continued to burn his skin as he was taken to hospital.
White phosphorus has been used as a filling in munitions since World War One and it is still commonly (and legally) deployed by armed forces for the purpose of creating smokescreens to obscure troop movements. In some cases white phosphorus remains in use as a chemical weapon to create the awful symptoms experienced by the dog walker, a practice that is illegal in any area of civilian habitation.
The origin of the white phosphorus on Blyth beach is unknown. It is was a common filling in British incendiary bombs during World War Two and, perhaps more significantly, it was also used in No. 76 Special Incendiary Grenades (commonly known as SIP Grenades). These were improvised anti-tank weapons and, given that the northeast coast was heavily-defended during WWII, this offers a possible explanation for the presence of the chemical.
There were explicit instructions for the safe storage of SIP Grenades during WWII, the main condition being that the devices were to be stored in cases in a cool place, preferably underwater. Once exposed to the air, the filling would begin to burn. This explains the unfortunate scenario that played out on Blyth beach.
It is a reminder that if an object on the beach looks in any way suspicious, it is always best to leave it well alone.