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Information @ a Glance

  • Phosgene is the chemical compound with the formula COCl2. This colorless gas gained infamy as a chemical weapon during World War I. It is also a valued industrial reagent and building block in synthesis of pharmaceuticals and other organic compounds. In low concentrations, its odor resembles freshly cut hay or grass.

  • Phosgene was first produced by John Davy (inventor of the ‘Davy Lamp’) at the start of the 19 th century. The chemical was named by combining the Greek words ‘phos’ (meaning light) and genesis (birth), as Davy used sunlight to produce the chemical from carbon monoxide and chlorine.

  • Phosgene is produced by passing purified carbon monoxide and chlorine gas through a bed of porous activated carbon, which serves as a catalyst.

  • Phosgene may also be produced during testing for leaks of older-style refrigerant gasses.

  • The great majority of phosgene is used in the production of isocyanates, the most important being toluene diisocyanate (TDI) and methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI). These isocyanates are precursors to polyurethanes. Phosgene was used during World War I as a choking (pulmonary) agent.

  • In the research laboratory phosgene still finds limited use in organic synthesis. A variety of substitutes have been developed, notably trichloromethyl chloroformate (“diphosgene”), which is a liquid at room temperature, and bis(trichloromethyl) carbonate (“triphosgene”), a crystalline substance.

  • Phosgene is an insidious poison as the odor may not be noticed and symptoms may be slow to appear. Phosgene can be detected at 0.4 ppm, which is four times the Threshold Limit Value. Its high toxicity arises from the action of the phosgene on the proteins in the pulmonary alveoli, which are the site of gas exchange: their damage disrupts the blood-air barrier, causing suffocation.

  • The primary use of phosgene is in the production of toluene diisocyanate (TDI), a precursor of the polyurethane resins used to make foams, elastomers, and coatings. A rapidly growing use of phosgene is in the manufacture of polymethylene polyphenylisocyanate (PMPPI), which is used in the production of rigid polyurethane foams.

  • The potential for phosgene generation by chlorocarbon decomposition exists at chlorocarbon producing facilities, metallurgical operations, drycleaning and degreasing facilities, certain types of industrial fires, and wherever solvents contact heat or ultraviolet light.

  • In all commercial phosgene processes, the chlorine atoms react with active hydrogen atoms to produce hydrogen chloride (HCl). Hydrogen chloride is an acid gas, and like phosgene, it can be controlled with a caustic scrubber; however, it is usually desirable for a water scrubber to precede the caustic scrubber.

  • Phosgene is unlikely to cause harm to the unborn child and is not considered to be a cancer-causing chemical (carcinogen). Exposure to phosgene has not been linked to the development of cancer. In other words, phosgene is not thought to be carcinogenic.

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