What to Know About White Phosphorus Bombs

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on March 25, 2022
3 min read

White phosphorus bombs are explosives used in warfare.

It’s a chemical made from phosphate rocks. In solid form, it has a waxy texture and a garlic-like odor. It may be white or yellow in color, or clear (colorless).

White phosphorus is extremely toxic to humans. It can also be quite unstable. In some forms, it catches fire at just 10-15 degrees above room temperature in reaction to oxygen.

Manufacturers use white phosphorus to make products like computer chips, metal alloys, fertilizer, glow-in-the-dark paint, rat poison, and fireworks.

Some manufacturers and governments also use it to make military ammunition, including bombs.

White phosphorus bombs are incendiary weapons. That means that along with their destructive explosive power, they can spread fire.

In this case, the fire is made from burning phosphorus, which burns at about 1,500 F. White phosphorus bombs can spread this fire over an area up to several hundred square yards. And the phosphorus continues to burn until it is all gone. All it requires is the presence of oxygen, which is in the air.

White phosphorus bombs can cause injuries that are more serious and harder to treat than injuries from conventional bombs. Medical professionals need special training to deal with these types of injuries and to protect themselves from phosphorus burns during treatment.

White phosphorus bombs can have a worse effect on human health than other weapons of similar explosive power.

On the skin, white phosphorus causes very painful burns that may be second-degree (partial thickness of skin) to third-degree (full thickness of skin). The burns typically have a yellowish color and a garlic-like odor. You may notice smoke coming from the injury as the white phosphorus continues to burn.

In addition, because white phosphorus dissolves easily in fat, it gets absorbed easily through the skin and into the body, where it can cause other serious symptoms.

In fact, burns from white phosphorus on less than 10% of your body could lead to death because of damage to the kidneys, liver, and heart.

In addition, white phosphorus can cause serious injury and death if you inhale or swallow it.

In the short term (acute effects), if you ingest white phosphorus in a large enough dose, you’ll notice signs and symptoms in three stages:

  • Stage 1: You may notice an upset stomach or other effects on your gut.
  • Stage 2: This is a quiet period -- typically about 48 hours without noticeable symptoms.
  • Stage 3: This starts a fast decline in your condition, with serious symptoms in your gut, like vomiting, stomach cramps, and lots of pain. You or medical personnel might start to see signs and symptoms of damage to your liver, kidneys, heart, blood vessels, or central nervous system.

Along with the above symptoms, you may notice irritation in your breathing passages and coughing if you breathe in white phosphorus.

Regular exposure to white phosphorus can make the bones of the jaw start to break down (necrosis, or “phossy jaw”). You might notice a bit of swelling and irritation at first that gets worse. Eventually, this can lead to open sores and the destruction of the jawbone as well as damage to the sinus and nasal passages.

Many experts say these weapons are illegal to use under customary international humanitarian law as well as other international laws and treaties (the 1980 Protocol on Incendiary Weapons, 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention, 1997 International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings, and others). But there is some dispute over these legal issues. Some rules and laws conflict with each other. And some laws have different requirements, depending on circumstances.