Two women combing a beach on the German Baltic coast were taken to the hospital with serious burns to their hands and legs after accidentally touching pieces of phosphorus that had washed ashore and are believed to have come from World War II incendiary bombs, police said.
The women, aged 39 and 77, had mistaken the phosphorus for amber and sustained second and third degree burns, said the head of the university clinic in the city of Greifswald where they were taken for treatment on Saturday.
The women had been walking separately along the beach of the seaside resort of Karlshagen in the north of the island of Usedom, a popular vacation destination.
Phosphorus ignites when exposed to oxygen and burns at a heat of 1,300 degrees Celsius. The flames can only be extinguished with sand. Running into the water accelerates the fire.
The Baltic and North Sea are contaminated with hundreds of thousands of tons of munitions that originated from coastal bombing raids or naval battles or had been dumped in the water by the Allies and the Germans after the war.
The phosphorus that was washed ashore on the beach at Usedom may have come from incendiary bombs the Allies dropped on the nearby rocket research plant on the island at Peenemünde, where Nazi Germany developed the feared V2 rocket.
The clinic in the town of Wolgast, where the women were initially brought before being moved to Greifswald, said it treats two to three people per year for phosphorus burns.
Experts say bombs, poisonous chemicals and sudden explosions of rusting ordnance pose a major threat to the Baltic Sea. Figures for the number of victims from World War II munitions in the sea for the whole of Germany's coastline aren't available. In neighboring Denmark, which keeps records, some 20 people, most of them fishermen, are reportedly injured each year in explosions or through contact with chemicals.
Warning signs along beaches on Usedom alert people to the danger. Environmental groups and scientists have been warning that the bombs are gradually rusting away and releasing their chemicals into the water.