White phosphorus P4 | harmful effects and treatment

White phosphorus

white phosphorus

What is white phosporus?

White phosphorus is a chemical element with the symbol P and the atomic number 15. It is an allotrope of elemental phosphorus, which means it is one of the various structural forms in which phosphorus can exist. White phosphorus is a waxy, translucent, white or yellowish substance that ignites spontaneously in air at temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) and can burn fiercely, producing a dense white smoke. Due to its pyrophoric nature, it has been used in various military applications, such as smoke screens, incendiary weapons, and illuminating munitions.

It is highly toxic and can cause severe burns upon contact with skin. Its use in warfare has raised ethical and humanitarian concerns, leading to international agreements and protocols that restrict its use in certain situations.

There are other allotropes of phosphorus, including red phosphorus and black phosphorus, which have different properties and applications. Red phosphorus, for example, is less reactive and is used in the striking surface of safety matches and in the manufacturing of certain types of chemicals. Black phosphorus is a relatively new allotrope that exhibits interesting electronic and optical properties, making it a subject of research in the field of nanomaterials and semiconductors.

Why is it banned?

It is not completely banned, but its use in certain contexts and under specific circumstances is heavily regulated due to its destructive and harmful effects. The primary reasons for restrictions on white phosphorus use are as follows:

  1. Humanitarian Concerns: it can cause severe and painful burns when it comes into contact with the skin, and inhaling its fumes can be toxic. Its use in warfare, particularly in populated areas, can result in significant harm to civilians, which raises ethical concerns and violates principles of international humanitarian law.
  2. Indiscriminate Nature: it can create a smokescreen or be used as an incendiary weapon. When used as an incendiary, it can ignite structures and vegetation, causing widespread fires that are difficult to control. This indiscriminate use of  p4 can lead to unintended harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure.
  3. International Agreements: There are international agreements and protocols that restrict or regulate its use in warfare. The most notable of these is the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), which includes a Protocol III on Incendiary Weapons. This protocol prohibits the use of incendiary weapons, including those containing p4, in a manner that can harm civilians or civilian objects.
  4. Customary International Law: Even in the absence of specific treaty obligations, the use of p4 in a manner that violates the principles of distinction and proportionality under customary international law is generally considered unacceptable.

Which phosphorus is more poisonous?

Both white phosphorus and yellow phosphorus are highly toxic, but yellow phosphorus is generally considered more poisonous to humans than white phosphorus.

Yellow phosphorus is a less stable allotrope of phosphorus, and it is more readily absorbed through the digestive system and the skin. Ingesting or coming into contact with yellow phosphorus can lead to severe poisoning. Symptoms of yellow phosphorus poisoning may include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, jaundice, and organ damage, particularly to the liver and kidneys. Yellow phosphorus poisoning can be life-threatening, and there is no specific antidote.

White phosphorus, while also toxic, is less readily absorbed through the skin or digestive system. It is more infamous for its pyrophoric properties and the severe burns it can cause upon contact with the skin. Inhaling the fumes produced when white phosphorus burns can also be toxic and cause respiratory problems.

In summary, both forms of phosphorus are dangerous, but yellow phosphorus is generally considered to be more toxic and poses a greater risk to human health when ingested or absorbed. It’s important to handle both forms of phosphorus with extreme caution and follow safety guidelines when working with them.

What does burning white phosphorus do to humans?

Burning white phosphorus can have severe and harmful effects on humans. When white phosphorus ignites, it produces intense heat and a dense, white smoke. Here’s what happens to humans when they come into contact with burning white phosphorus:

  1. Burns: Contact with burning white phosphorus can cause deep, painful, and severe burns. The substance can adhere to the skin, and its ignition temperature is higher than the boiling point of water. As a result, trying to extinguish white phosphorus burns with water can be ineffective and may even make the situation worse.
  2. Smoke Inhalation: Inhaling the fumes and smoke produced by burning white phosphorus can be toxic. These fumes contain phosphorus pentoxide, which can irritate the respiratory system and lead to lung damage. It can cause difficulty breathing, coughing, and potentially more serious respiratory issues.
  3. Phosphorus Poisoning: In addition to skin and respiratory issues, exposure to burning white phosphorus may also lead to phosphorus poisoning. Symptoms of phosphorus poisoning can include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and other gastrointestinal problems.

It’s important to note that the burns caused by white phosphorus can be particularly challenging to treat, as the substance continues to burn as long as it is exposed to oxygen. Medical care for white phosphorus burns typically involves the removal of any burning particles and extensive wound care.

Due to these severe and harmful effects, the use of white phosphorus in warfare and other contexts has raised ethical and humanitarian concerns, leading to international regulations and restrictions on its use to minimize harm to civilians and combatants.

How to treat the effects of white phosphorus?

Treating the effects of white phosphorus exposure, especially burns, is challenging and should be carried out by medical professionals. If you or someone you know is exposed to white phosphorus, seek immediate medical attention. Here are some general guidelines for how white phosphorus burns may be treated:

  1. Remove Affected Clothing: Carefully remove any clothing or material that may be contaminated with white phosphorus. Use gloves or other protective gear to avoid direct contact.
  2. Cooling with Water: For white phosphorus burns, it is crucial to cool the affected area with copious amounts of water. Use running water for at least 15-20 minutes. This will help to extinguish the burning phosphorus and cool the tissue to minimize further damage.
  3. Do Not Use Water for Smoldering Particles: Do not use water to extinguish any smoldering white phosphorus particles embedded in the wound. Instead, these particles should be carefully removed with forceps.
  4. Protecting the Wound: After thoroughly flushing the affected area with water, cover the wound with a clean, dry, non-stick dressing. Avoid using adhesive bandages, as they can cause additional damage when removed.
  5. Pain Management: Administer pain relief as necessary to help manage the pain associated with the burn.
  6. Transport to a Medical Facility: It is essential to get the person to a hospital or medical facility as soon as possible for specialized treatment. White phosphorus burns can be particularly severe and may require specialized care and debridement to remove any remaining particles.
  7. Supportive Care: Depending on the extent and severity of the burns, further medical interventions such as wound care, antibiotics to prevent infection, and surgery may be necessary.

White phosphorus burns are extremely serious and should be managed by healthcare professionals. These guidelines are meant to provide basic first aid measures until professional medical assistance can be obtained. It is important to avoid self-treatment or relying solely on first aid measures for white phosphorus burns.

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