WP is a colorless to yellow translucent wax-like substance with a pungent, garlic-like smell. The form used by the military is highly energetic (active) and ignites once it is exposed to oxygen. White phosphorus is a pyrophoric material, that is, it is spontaneously flammable).
When exposed to air, it spontaneously ignites and is oxidized rapidly to phosphorus pentoxide. Such heat is produced by this reaction that the element bursts into a yellow flame and produces a dense white smoke. Phosphorus also becomes luminous in the dark, and this property is conveyed to "tracer bullets." This chemical reaction continues until either all the material is consumed or the element is deprived of oxygen. Up to 15 percent of the WP remains within the charred wedge and can reignite if the felt is crushed and the unburned WP is exposed to the atmosphere.
White phosphorus results in painful chemical burn injuries. The resultant burn typically appears as a necrotic area with a yellowish color and characteristic garliclike odor. White phosphorus is highly lipid soluble and as such, is believed to have rapid dermal penetration once particles are embedded under the skin. Because of its enhanced lipid solubility, many have believed that these injuries result in delayed wound healing. This has not been well studied; therefore, all that can be stated is that white phosphorus burns represent a small subsegment of chemical burns, all of which typically result in delayed wound healing.
Incandescent particles of WP may produce extensive burns. Phosphorus burns on the skin are deep and painful; a firm eschar is produced and is surrounded by vesiculation. The burns usually are multiple, deep, and variable in size. The solid in the eye produces severe injury. The particles continue to burn unless deprived of atmospheric oxygen. Contact with these particles can cause local burns. These weapons are particularly nasty because white phosphorus continues to burn until it disappears. If service members are hit by pieces of white phosphorus, it could burn right down to the bone. Burns usually are limited to areas of exposed skin (upper extremities, face). Burns frequently are second and third degree because of the rapid ignition and highly lipophilic properties of white phosphorus.
If burning particles of WP strike and stick to the clothing, take off the contaminated clothing quickly before the WP burns through to the skin. Remove quickly all clothing affected by phosphorus to prevent phosphorus burning through to skin. If this is impossible, plunge skin or clothing affected by phosphorus in cold water or moisten strongly to extinguish or prevent fire. Then immediately remove affected clothing and rinse affected skin areas with cold sodium bicarbonate solution or with cold water. Moisten skin and remove visible phosphorus (preferably under water) with squared object (knife-back etc.) or tweezers. Do not touch phosphorus with fingers! Throw removed phosphorus or clothing affected by phosphorus into water or allow to bum in suitable location. Cover phosphorus burns with moist dressing and keep moist to prevent renewed inflammation. It is neccessary to dress white phosphorus-injured patients with saline-soaked dressings to prevent reignition of the phosphorus by contact with the air.
Some nations recommend washing the skin with a 0.5-2.0% copper sulphate solution or a copper sulphate impregnated pad. Wounds may be rinsed with a 0.1%-0.2% copper sulphate solution, if available. Dark coloured deposits may be removed with forceps. Prevent prolonged contact of any copper sulphate preparations with the tissues by prompt, copious flushing with water or saline, as there is a definite danger of copper poisoning. It may be necessary to repeat the first aid measures to completely remove all phosphorus.
White Phosphorus (WP) creates a smoke screen as it burns. Phosphorus smokes are generated by a variety of munitions. Some of these munitions such as the M825 (155-mm round) may, on explosion, distribute particles of incompletely oxidized white phosphorus.
Smokes obscure vision and are used to hide troops, equipment, and areas from detection. Smoke screens are essential for movement in city fighting. In the December 1994 battle for Grozny in Chechnya, every fourth or fifth Russian artillery or mortar round fired was a smoke or white phosphorus round.
White Phosphorus and Red Phosphorus burn to produce a hygroscopic smoke containing phosphoric acids. Red phosphorus (RP) is not nearly as reactive as white phosphorus. It reacts slowly with atmospheric moisture and the smoke does not produce thermal injury, hence the smoke is less toxic. The extinction for these smokes is primarily due to scattering in the visible and absorption in the infrared (IR). These smokes are composed of spherical liquid particles that grow with relative humidity to an equilibrium size by absorbing ambient moisture that depends on the ambient relative humidity. The mass extinction varies significantly with relative humidity.
The White Phosphorus flame produces a hot, dense white smoke composed of particles of phosphorus pentoxide, which are converted by moist air into phosphoric acid. This acid, depending on concentration and duration of exposure, may produce a variety of topically irritative injuries.
Most smokes are not hazardous in concentrations which are useful for obscuring purposes. However, any smoke can be hazardous to health if the concentration is sufficient or if the exposure is long enough. Medical personnel should be prepared to treat potential reactions to military smokes once such smokes have been introduced to the battlefield. Exposure to heavy smoke concentrations for extended periods (particularly if near the source of emission) may cause illness or even death.
Casualties from WP smoke have not occurred in combat operations.At room temperature, white phosphorus is somewhat volatile and may produce a toxic inhalational injury. In moist air, the phosphorus pentoxide produces phosphoric acid. This acid, depending on concentration and duration of exposure, may produce a variety of topically irritative injuries. Irritation of the eyes and irritation of the mucous membranes are the most commonly seen injuries. These complaints remit spontaneously with the soldier's removal from the exposure site. With intense exposures, a very explosive cough may occur, which renders gas mask adjustment difficult. There are no reported deaths resulting from exposure to phosphorus smokes. Generally, treatment of WP smoke irritation is unnecessary. Spontaneous recovery is rapid.
White phosphorus fume can cause severe eye irritation with blepharospasm, photophobia, and lacrimation. Irritation of the eyes and irritation of the mucous membranes are the most commonly seen injuries. These complaints remit spontaneously with the soldier's removal from the exposure site. The WP smoke irritates the eyes and nose in moderate concentrations. With intense exposures, a very explosive cough may occur, which renders gas mask adjustment difficult. There are no reported deaths resulting from exposure to phosphorus smokes.