Thursday 16 January 2014

German man receives third degree burns after trousers set on fire by 'amber' pebble.

A 67-year-old German Man is being treated for third degree burns after a pebble he picked up while collecting amber on a beach on the country's Baltic coast burst into flames in his pocket. The incident happened at Stein in Schleswig Holstein, roughly 15 km to the northeast of Kiel, where Baltic amber is often found on the beach. Unfortunately on this occasion the 'amber' turned out to be a piece of white phosphorous, believed to have leaked from World War Two munitions dumped in the Baltic. White phosphorous is a powerful incendiary agent, which ignites spontaneously on reaching 30℃ (slightly bellow human body temperature), tends to stick to skin, and cannot be extinguished using water.

The approximate location of the beach where the 'amber' pebble was found. Google Maps.

White phosphorous has been used in munitions since World War One. As well as its incendiary properties it can be used to make flares, or smoke bombs, either illuminating or obscuring parts of the battlefield. Under the terms of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons the use of white phosphorous against civilian targets or in civilian area is banned. A number of nations have been accused of using white phosphorous in this way in recent years, notably Israel in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, America in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and there have been calls from human rights organizations for the substance to be completely banned in munitions.

Baltic amber is the preserved resin of Eocene coniferous trees that formed huge forests covering much of Scandinavia and Northern Europe. Since this floats it is often found on beaches around the Baltic Sea, and sometimes further afield, making the precise dating of individual pieces difficult.

See also A new species of Ant from late Eocene Danish AmberA new species of Scorpionfly from Baltic Amber and An Eocene False Scorpion from Baltic amber.

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