White phosphorus ‘burns to the bone’

It causes skin to melt away from the bone and can break down a victim’s jawbone, but white phosphorus – known in Vietnam as Willie Pete – is still used by sections of the world’s military.Similar to Napalm, the chemical substance is used in shells and grenades, igniting spontaneously at around 30C to produce an intense heat and thick pillars of smoke.

Weapons experts warn that when used as an incendiary, it can result in painful chemical burns – injuries which can often prove fatal.


Further problems are caused because the substance can stick to clothing or on the skin and continues to burn unchecked as particles are exposed to air.

Witness accounts of combat in Fallujah, where a significant civilian population were living, claim the injured affected by phosphorus suffered horrendous burns.

It is feared there was widespread use of the weapon, not just to target insurgent positions but in raids on houses and buildings.

Experts at US military information service GlobalSecurity.org claim skin injuries caused by the substance are often “deep and painful”.

“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,” it states in notes on the weapon.

“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.”

Prohibited under weapons convention

Though it can also be used to light up enemy positions, the munitions are also effective when used to firebomb opposing forces.

While the use of the material is not specifically banned, it is covered by Protocol III of the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons, which prohibits use of the substance as an incendiary weapon against civilian populations and in air attacks against military forces in civilian areas.

Though the UK and 80 other countries are signatories to protocol III, the United States is not.

American forces have admitted using the chemical as a weapon, for illumination and to produce a smokescreen to mask troop movement during combat in Fallujah.

The fact that the US had earlier denied using the material during operations in the Iraqi city hint at the controversial nature of deploying phosphorus against civilians.

Rounds of the chemical were also used extensively by Russian troops in the December 1994 battle for Grozny, in Chechnya.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a US Government department, has raised concern about health risks attached to breathing in the smoke.

It is thought that the chemical can create a condition known as “phossy jaw”, which causes wounds to the mouth which are slow to heal and can result in a person’s jawbone virtually disintegrating.