Book Review: For a Centuries-Long Phosphorous Binge, a Reckoning


In “The Devil’s Element,” journalist Dan Egan shows how an essential component of life has become a global menace.

An algae bloom in Lake Erie in 2017, photographed from space. (Credit: NASA/USGS)

One day about 10 years ago, a German beachcomber picked up a small orange rock and pocketed it without much thought. Minutes later, he looked down to see that his left leg was on fire. The rock, it turned out, was not a rock at all but a glob of phosphorus — a remnant of the deadly firebombs that pummeled the country during World War II. After decades of slumber, the modest heat of the man’s body had rekindled its wrath, leaving him badly injured.

That harrowing incident makes a fitting opener for Dan Egan’s new book, “The Devil’s Element: Phosphorus and a World Out of Balance.” In the tradition of environmental clarion calls like “Silent Spring” and “The Sixth Extinction,” which drew attention to the problems of pesticide overuse and disappearing species, respectively, “The Devil’s Element” urges readers to confront another quietly unfolding disaster. This one revolves around phosphorus — which is essential for life but has, at the hands of humans, become a menace in ways that go far beyond incendiary pebbles.

Read the full review in Undark.