International Middle East Center, January 13, 2009 - Military use and use in Iraq: According to Global Security (a national security information outlet in the US): White Phosphorus (WP), known as Willy Pete, is used for signaling, screening, and incendiary purposes. White Phosphorus can be used to destroy the enemy's equipment or to limit his vision. It is used against vehicles, petroleum, oils and lubricants (POL) and ammunition storage areas, and enemy observers. WP can be used as an aid in target location and navigation. It is usually dispersed by explosive munitions. It can be fired with fuze time to obtain an airburst. White phosphorus was used most often during World War II in military formulations for smoke screens, marker shells, incendiaries, hand grenades, smoke markers, colored flares, and tracer bullets.”
Health impact: At one point WP was used in rat poison and in fireworks but modern products do not have it because of potential health hazards. The US Center for Disease Control states that it is reported to cause death an injury when inhaled, ingested, or had contact with the skin (whether after burns or without burning) http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp103-c2.pdf The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) listed white phosphorus as a “Hazardous Air Pollutant” and requires spills of 1 pound or more to be reported to the EPA (Center for Disease Control report http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/tfacts103.html)
White phosphorus burns can be lethal due to absorption of WP from the burned surface “which may result in multi-organ failure (mainly liver and kidneys), hyperphosphatemia, hypocalcemia, and electrocardiogram (ECG) abnormalities (ST depression, QT elongation, microvoltage of QRS and bradycardia) (Bowen TE, Whelan TJ Jr, Nelson TG. 1971. Sudden death after phosphorus burns: experimental observations of hypocalcemia, hyperphosphatemia, and electrocardiographic abnormalities following production of a standard white phosphorus burn. Ann Surg 174:779-784.; Eldad A. Simon GA. 1991. The phosphorus burn - a preliminary comparative experimental study of various forms of treatment. Burns 17:198-200.; cited in CDC document http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp103-c2.pdf).
Patients who survive for more than a week usually exhibit significant changes in fat and protein metabolism (including fatty degeneration) and severe jaundice (Blanke RV. 1970. Toxicology. In: Tietz NW, ed. Fundamentals of clinical chemistry. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Co, 833-889.). When WP burns in the air in conditions of high oxygen, it generates smoke with an average aerosol mass concentration between 2,500 and 3,000 mg/m3, with the major components being polyphosphates, phosphine, and elemental phosphorus (Van Voris P, Cataldo DA, Ligotke MW, et al. 1987. Evaluate and characterize mechanisms controlling transport, fate and effects of Army smokes in the aersol wind tunnel. Pacific Northwest Laboratories, Richland, Washington.). Acute (5-30 minute) exposures to WP smoke caused deaths in experimental rats, mice, guinea pigs, and goats at concentrations of orthophosphoric acid and phosphorus pentoxide well below those that occur in military usage (Brown BJ, Affleck GE, Ferrand RL, et al.. 1980).
The acute effects of single exposures to white phosphorus smoke in rats and guinea pigs. Report No. ARCSL-TR-80013, AD-B051836L; White SA, Armstrong GC. 1935. White phosphorus smoke: Its irritating concentration for man and its toxicity for small animals for one-hour exposures. E.A.T.P. 190, Project A 5.2-l.). These authors documented congestion, edema, and hemorrhages in the lungs of effected animals.
WP substance is now known to cause what is known as phossy jaws (a degenerative condition affecting the soft tissue, bones, and teeth of the oral cavity) which has resulted in deaths due to secondary septicemias (Ward EF. 1928. Phosphorus necrosis in the manufacture of fireworks. Journal of Industrial Hygiene and Toxicology 10:314-330.). There are scattered studies on effects of WP and WP Smoke on renal, circulatory, hepatic, and musculoskeletal systems (see http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp103-c2.pdf )
The third health effect is in the persistence of particles of WP in the environment . These is obviously more common in combat use of large amounts in shells as compared to usual spills or pollution from industrial production WP chunks may be shielded from oxygen (hence burning) either by falling into water that has little oxygen content or simply as pieces of solids that can linger in the environment for years without reacting or as intermediary combustion products (partial combustion) especially in soils or environments with limited oxygen content. (http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp103-c2.pdf).Mazin Qumsiyeh, PhD is Chairman of the Board of the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement between People and is a professor at Bethlehem University in the occupied West Bank.