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

It’s highly flammable and can spontaneously catch fire when it encounters oxygen 10 to 15 degrees above room temperature.

White phosphorous is used to manufacture fertilizers, food additives, and cleaning components. It’s also used by militaries in ammunition and to produce smoke.

Burns from white phosphorous are relatively rare but can cause second- to third-degree burns and life threatening organ damage.

People most likely to encounter white phosphorous are those working in industries where it’s manufactured or military personnel and civilians living in warzones where it’s used.

Keep reading to learn more about white phosphorous burns including symptoms, treatment, and who’s at risk.

White phosphorous causes severe burns and other potentially life threatening symptoms if:

  • it contacts your skin or eyes
  • you ingest it
  • you breathe it in

Exposure to large amounts can be life threatening and chronic exposure to smaller amounts can also impact your health.

Skin and eye contact

If white phosphorous or its smoke contacts your skin, it can immediately cause severely painful second-degree or third-degree burns. It’s easily absorbed through your skin, and toxicity can cause whole-body effects like liver or kidney damage.

Eye exposure can also cause symptoms such as:


Breathing in smoke from white phosphorous can cause:

Exposure to large amounts can cause:

  • heart damage
  • liver damage
  • heart damage
  • coma

You can die from too much exposure.


Ingestion can cause irritation in your mouth, throat, and stomach that might lead to:

Ingesting large amounts can cause whole-body effects that can be life threatening. The whole-body effects occur in three phases:

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

Chronic exposure

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

White phosphorous burns can be second- or third-degree. Second-degree burns reach the deeper part of your skin called your dermis. They can cause:

  • blisters
  • redness
  • swelling
  • pain

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

Instead of turning red, third-degree burns may turn:

  • black
  • yellow
  • white

Burns from white phosphorous may have a garlic-like odor and smoke may come from the burn site.

Workers in ammunition and other industries that use white phosphorous in manufacturing are at the highest risk of white phosphorous exposure. Military personnel or civilians living in war zones where white phosphorous is used are also at risk.

White phosphorous can build up in small amounts in fish living in contaminated lakes or streams or remain dormant in deep soil with little oxygen exposure.

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

One case study presented a woman and her daughter who were burned when they were collecting rocks on a beach near Tel Aviv, Israel. They found an unusual translucent yellow rock and brought it home wrapped in a wet paper towel.

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

White phosphorous is used by militaries, including the U.S. military, to create smoke screens, create illumination, and mark targets.

There’s significant disagreement about the legality of white phosphorous bombs and other weapons according to international law.

No international treaties specifically ban white phosphorous for military use since it has legitimate uses. However, some treaties ban the use of weapons that cause unnecessary suffering.

Many experts consider white phosphorous illegal if used when not deemed necessary.

White phosphorous is used in the manufacturing of:

  • chemicals in fertilizers
  • food additives
  • cleaning components

It’s previously been used as a pesticide and in fireworks.

Treatment for white phosphorous burns involves removing the phosphorus from the skin or eyes to avoid further burns and aggressive irrigation with cold water to cool the skin.

White phosphorous doesn’t have an antidote, but medical professionals may 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 phosphorous burns are medical emergencies that need prompt attention to prevent potentially lethal complications. If you’re with someone experiencing a white phosphorous burn, it’s critical to call emergency medical services, such as 911 in the U.S., immediately.

Treating white phosphorous burns in the eyes

  1. Remove the person from the source of white phosphorous.
  2. Wash their eyes with cold water for 15 minutes or more.
  3. Keep their eyes covered with cool wet compresses to prevent white phosphorous particles from catching on fire again.
  4. Avoid applying fat or oil ointments.
  5. Consider applying an eye cage (if available) to prevent direct eye pressure.
  6. Seek medical attention immediately.

Treating white phosphorous burns on the skin

  1. Remove the person from the source of white phosphorous.
  2. Remove their clothing at least down to their underwear and put it in a labeled bag.
  3. Vigorously cleanse their skin with soap and cold water.
  4. Remove visible pieces of white phosphorous with large amounts of cold water and immediately place them into a container with cold water to keep them from catching on fire.
  5. Avoid applying fat or oil ointments.
  6. Seek medical attention immediately.

White phosphorous catches on fire when it contacts oxygen 10 to 15 degrees above room temperature. It can cause severe burns on your skin or eyes and toxicity that may be life threatening.

People most likely to experience white phosphorous burns are those working in manufacturing industries that use white phosphorous. Military personnel and civilians in warzones where it’s used are also at risk of exposure.

White phosphorous burns are medical emergencies that require immediate medical attention. If you’re with somebody who’s burned, it’s critical to call emergency medical services or get them to an area where they can receive emergency medical attention as soon as possible.