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The fifth most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, calcium is an essential constituent of leaves, bones, teeth and shells. It has a silvery metallic appearance and is relatively soft for a metal (though harder than lead). Its density is the lowest of the group 2 alkaline earth metals; magnesium, strontium and beryllium are denser though lighter in atomic mass.
Although calcium compounds were known to the ancients, it was not isolated as a metal until 1808 by the Cornish chemist Sir Humphry Davy through the electrolysis of its oxide with mercuric dioxide. Owing to its reactivity, it is rarely used in pure form. However, it is a component of many important commercial products: calcium chloride and fluoride are used as bleaches in paper industry, calcium hydroxide is found in drain cleaners to generate heat that dissolves fats and proteins that block drains, and the metal is used as an alloying ingredient for aluminium, beryllium, copper and lead.
The metallic form of calcium is very reactive and must be stored in an inert atmosphere such as argon. It is a dangerous substance, and swallowed can cause vomiting, diarrhea and even death. Even small pieces of the metal are hazardous because they react with water and acids, generating hydrogen gas that can irritate the throat and lungs. It also reacts violently with molten glass, forming an insoluble calcium silicate that can burn skin. It is best handled with pliers or a hammer and kept away from open flames and light.