cover image The Devil’s Element: Phosphorous and a World Out of Balance

The Devil’s Element: Phosphorous and a World Out of Balance

Dan Egan. Norton, $30 (256p) ISBN 978-1-324-00266-6

Journalist Egan (The Death and Life of the Great Lakes) delivers a cautionary history of the mineral phosphorous. He emphasizes its importance to the natural world and human societies, tracing its discovery to 17th-century alchemist Hennig Brandt, who distilled phosphorous from urine and capitalized on its “otherworldly” glow to sell it as a novelty. Because phosphorus is essential to soil, 19th-century British agriculturalists took advantage of bones’ high phosphorous content and established “bone-crushing mills” where soldiers’ skeletons were made into fertilizer. Later in the century, phosphorous mining grew into a ravenous industry whose operations across the globe endangered many Indigenous Pacific islanders and ignited a bloody conflict on the Western Sahara. Today, Egan notes, the overuse of phosphorous drives such environmental catastrophes as toxic algae blooms. Though phosphorous is deadly in its elemental form—British bombs dropped on Hamburg in 1943 were “packed with phosphorous”—the mineral is also crucial to the functions of cells, DNA, and photosynthesis. The dark history highlights the element’s overlooked centrality to human life, and Egan makes sure to counterbalance his warnings of phosphorus overuse with strategies to cope with potential shortages, including “aggressively” recycling manure. This will ignite readers’ curiosity. (Mar.)