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phosphorus hydride is a volatile and extremely toxic gas. When absorbed into the lungs it produces symptoms such as coughing up blood (pulmonary edema) and collapse of blood vessels in the limbs (peripheral vascular collapse), which may be life-threatening. A severe exposure causes whole-body toxicity (systemic phosphine poisoning) which leads to death by inhalation. A less severe exposure produces more localized toxicity and symptoms such as skin irritation and cold-like sensations. Contact with liquefied phosphine liquid can cause frostbite.

Pure phosphine is odorless, but it is impured by an impurity, diphosphane, with the formula P2H4, which smells like rotting fish or garlic. It was discovered in 1783 by Philippe Gengembre, a student of Antoine Lavoisier. It is produced electrothermally during the production of white phosphorus from phosphates and also by heating calcium phosphide, Ca3P2, with water; by oxidizing red phosphorus in air or yellow phosphorus under the action of nitric acid or hydrogen peroxide; or by passing chlorine into melted phosphorus covered with water (the first formed phosphorous trichloride decomposes to give metaand pyrophosphates and a small amount of phosphine).

The phosphorus hydride combines explosively with ether to form a waxy black substance that crystallizes on cooling into a cubic shape. It is soluble in water, forming a solution with a pH of about 4. It reacts quickly with alkali metal hydroxides, such as NaOH and NaBH4, to yield alkali phosphonium halides, namely a mixture of free phosphite and phosphorylated phosphite; with alcohols, such as ethanol and methanol, to form a solution of a mixture of phosphites with the corresponding phosphite hydrates; and with cyanide salts, such as sodium hypochlorite, to form a mixture of free cyanide, phosphoryl sulphate and thiophosphoryl chloride.