Who is at risk, symptoms, treatment

White phosphorus is a substance made artificially from phosphate rocks. It is a waxy solid that can be white, yellow or colorless with a garlic odor.

It is highly flammable and can ignite spontaneously when it encounters oxygen at 10 to 15 degrees above room temperature.

White phosphorus is used to make fertilizers, food additives and cleaning components. It is also used by the military in munitions and to produce smoke.

White phosphorus burns are relatively rare but can cause second to third degree burns and potentially fatal organ damage.

The people most likely to encounter white phosphorus are those who work in the industries where it is made or military personnel and civilians living in war zones where it is used.

Keep reading to learn more about white phosphorus burns, including symptoms, treatment, and who is at risk.

White phosphorus causes severe burns and other life-threatening symptoms if:

  • it comes into contact with your skin or eyes
  • you ingest it
  • you breathe it

Exposure to large amounts can be fatal, and chronic exposure to smaller amounts can also impact your health.

Contact with skin and eyes

If white phosphorus or its smoke comes into contact with your skin, it may cause immediately Very painful second or third degree burns. It is easily absorbed through the skin and its toxicity can have effects throughout the body, such as liver or kidney damage.

Eye exposure can also cause symptoms such as:


Inhalation of white phosphorus smoke can cause:

Exposure to large amounts may cause:

  • heart damage
  • liver damage
  • heart damage
  • coma

You can die from too much exposure.


Ingestion may cause irritation of the mouth, throat and stomach which may lead to:

Ingestion of large amounts may cause whole body effects which may be life threatening. The whole-body effects occur in three phases:

  • Shock stage: Gastrointestinal effects may develop within the first few minutes to 8 hours after exposure. Toxicity can be severe enough to cause death in 24 to 48 hours.
  • Asymptomatic phase: The second stage lasts from 8 hours to 3 days and is characterized by an absence of symptoms.
  • Multiorgan failure: After 4 to 8 days, people may experience multiple organ failure or brain and spinal cord injury that can lead to death.

Chronic exposure

Chronic exposure to low amounts of white phosphorus can lead to:

White phosphorus burns can be second or third degree. Second degree burns affect the deepest part of your skin called your dermis. They can cause:

  • blisters
  • redness
  • swelling
  • pain

Third-degree burns penetrate your skin completely and can damage underlying tissue. They may not hurt if they damage nerve endings.

Instead of turning red, third-degree burns can become:

White phosphorus burns may have a garlicky odor and smoke may come from the burn site.

Workers in munitions and other industries that use white phosphorus in manufacturing are most at risk of exposure to white phosphorus. Military personnel or civilians living in war zones where white phosphorus is used are also at risk.

White phosphorus can accumulate in small amounts in fish living in contaminated lakes or streams or lie dormant in deep soil with little exposure to oxygen.

In some cases, white phosphorus can remain at the bottom of lakes and rivers near the factories where it is made.

A case study featured a woman and her daughter who were burned while picking up rocks on a beach near Tel Aviv, Israel. They found an unusual translucent yellow rock and brought it home wrapped in a damp paper towel.

When they opened the paper towel, the stone ignited and burned the mother. The rock turned out to be white phosphorus.

White phosphorus is used by the military, including the US military, to create smoke screens, create illumination, and mark targets.

There is significant disagreement over the legality of white phosphorus bombs and other weapons under international law.

No international treaty specifically bans white phosphorus for military purposes since it has legitimate uses. However, some treaties prohibit the use of weapons that cause unnecessary suffering.

Many experts consider white phosphorus to be illegal if used when not deemed necessary.

White phosphorus is used in the manufacture of:

  • chemicals in fertilizers
  • food additives
  • cleaning components

It was once used as a pesticide and in fireworks.

Treatment for white phosphorus burns involves flushing the phosphorus from the skin or eyes to prevent further burns and irrigating aggressively with cold water to cool the skin.

White phosphorus has no antidote, but medical professionals can use copper sulfate to neutralize it.

A variety of other medical treatments are used to treat symptoms as they arise. These may include:

Medical emergency

White phosphorus burns are medical emergencies that require prompt attention to prevent life-threatening complications. If you are with someone who suffers a white phosphorus burn, it is essential to immediately call emergency medical services, such as 911 in the United States.

Treating White Phosphorus Burns in the Eyes

  1. Move the person away from the source of white phosphorus.
  2. wash their eyes with Cold water for 15 minutes or more.
  3. Keep their eyes covered with cool, moist compresses to prevent the white phosphorus particles from igniting again.
  4. Avoid applying greasy or oily ointments.
  5. Consider applying an eye cage (if available) to avoid direct eye pressure.
  6. Consult a doctor immediately.

Treating white phosphorus burns on the skin

  1. Move the person away from the source of white phosphorus.
  2. Remove their clothing at least down to their underwear and put them in a labeled bag.
  3. Thoroughly clean their skin with soap and cold the water.
  4. Remove visible pieces of white phosphorus with copious amounts of cold water and immediately place them in a container with cold water to prevent them from igniting.
  5. Avoid applying greasy or oily ointments.
  6. Consult a doctor immediately.

White phosphorus ignites when it comes into contact with oxygen at 10 to 15 degrees above room temperature. It can cause severe skin or eye burns and life-threatening toxicity.

The people most likely to suffer white phosphorus burns are those who work in manufacturing industries that use white phosphorus. Military personnel and civilians in war zones where it is used are also at risk of exposure.

White phosphorus burns are medical emergencies that require immediate medical attention. If you are with someone who has a burn, it is essential to call emergency medical services or get them to an area where they can receive emergency medical attention as soon as possible.