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Phosgene is a major industrial chemical used to make chemicals and Pesticides, but at room temperature it is a poisonous gas. It was used extensively in World War II as a pulmonary agent. The gas is heavier than air so the vapor cloud stays near the ground and spreads quickly. Phosgene is ranked a 5 out of 7 in toxicity by the #Scorecard making it in the top ten percent of toxic substances it.  

Physical Properties

At room temperature, phosgene is a a white or pale yellow gas with, at low concentrations, the odor of newly mown hay or corn. It is, by itself, nonflammable (#CDC). It is four times denser than air.

Phosgene is also known as carbonyl chloride (COCL2). It is formed when chlorinated hydrocarbon compounds are exposed to high temperatures.

Its boiling point is 8.2°C, making it an extremely volatile and non-persistent agent (#Federation of American Scientists).

Mode of Action

See the Pathophysiology section of #Gray, 2006.


Phosgene still is used to create numerous products including plastics, pharmaceutical agents, polyurethanes, dyes, and Pesticides. Industries in the United States alone use over 1 billion pounds of phosgene yearly (#Gray, 2006).

It has also been used extensively as a chemical weapon, most notably in World War I.


Phosgene was first used as a Chemical Weapons in World War I by the Germans, but was later used by the French, Americans, and British in that same conflict (#Gray, 2006). Initial deployment of the gas was by the Germans at Ypres Salient on December 19, 1915 when they released around 4000 cylinders of phosgene combined with Chlorine against the British. Phosgene has rarely been used since World War I, partly because most countries frowned upon the use of chemical weapons and partly because newer agents were developed (#Gray, 2006). Phosgene was responsible for the majority of deaths that result from chemical warfare (#CDC).

Signs and Symptoms of Poisoning

From #CDC:
During or immediately after exposure to dangerous concentrations of phosgene, the following signs and symptoms may develop:

  • Coughing
  • Burning sensation in the throat and eyes
  • Watery eyes
  • Blurred vision
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Nausea and vomiting

*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 (pulmonary edema) within 2 to 6 hours. Exposure to phosgene may cause delayed effects that may not be apparent for up to 48 hours after exposure, even if the person feels better or appears well following removal from exposure. Therefore, people who have been exposed to phosgene should be monitored for 48 hours afterward. Delayed effects that can appear for up to 48 hours include the following:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Coughing up white to pink-tinged fluid (a sign of pulmonary edema)
  • Low blood pressure
  • Heart failure
  • Showing these signs or symptoms does not necessarily mean that a person has been exposed to phosgene.


First, in case of phosgene exposure, one should leave the area of the phosgene release as quickly as possible. Remove clothing and wash entire body with soap or water and get to a medical care facility as quickly as possible.

Exposed clothing should be removed keeping it away from the head (cut off shirts if necessary rather than pull them off over the head) and should be sealed in a plastic bag if possible (#CDC). If one has ingested phosgene, do not induce vomiting or drink any fluids.

Treatment for phosgene centers around removing the phosgene from the body as quickly as possible because no antidote exists for phosgene.


CDC on Phosgene.

Scorecard on Phosgene.

Federation of American Scientists. "Types of Chemical Weapons." Accessed 10.24.11.

Gray, Elizabeth and John W. Love. "CBRNE - Lung-Damaging Agents, Phosgene". Retreived on 1-14-07.

Tucker, Johnathon B. War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda. Pantheon Books, 2006.

Hutchinson, Robert. Weapons of mass Destruction: The No-nonsense Guide to Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Weapons Today. Widenfield and nicholson, 2003.

Smart, Jeffery K., M.A. (1997). "History of Biological and Chemical Warfare". Textbook of Military Medicine: Medical Aspects of Chemical and Biological Warfare. Retrieved Jan. 5, 2006 from Center for Diaster and Humanitarian Assistance Medicine (CDHAM). Retreived Jan. 5, 2004.

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