What is the White Phosphorus?

White Phosphorus

Context: Human Rights Watch recently accused Israel of using white phosphorus munitions in Gaza, and said that such weapons put civilians at risk of serious and long-term injury. 

White Phosphorus

  • White (sometimes called yellow) phosphorus is a white to yellow waxy solid with a garlic like odour.
  • It ignites spontaneously in air at temperatures above 30°C and continues to burn until it is fully oxidized or until deprived of oxygen.
  • Burning phosphorus produces dense, white, irritating smoke containing mixed phosphorus oxides and intense heat, reaching up to 815°C, making it one of the most lethal weapons in military operations.


  • Industrial: Production of phosphoric acid, phosphates and other compounds. It has been used as a rodenticide and in fireworks.
    • Phosphates are used to manufacture a range of products including fertilizers and detergents. 
  • Military: 
    • Its primary military use is as a smokescreen used to hide troop movement on the ground.
    • It is also known to mess with infrared optics and weapons tracking systems, thus protecting forces from guided missiles.
    • White phosphorus can also be used as an incendiary weapon such as grenades and artillery shells, which can result in persistent and intense fires, effective against people, equipment, and structures.

Effects of exposure:

  • Upon exposure, white phosphorus can cause severe burns, often down to the bone. The burns are excruciatingly painful, difficult to heal, and susceptible to infections. Particles of white phosphorus that remain lodged the body can reignite if in contact with air. 
  • Inhaling white phosphorus particles or smoke can cause respiratory damage and harm to internal organs. Death may occur from shock, hepatic or renal failure, central nervous system or myocardial damage.
  • Those who survive initial injuries often experience a lifetime of suffering with impaired mobility.
Effects of White Phosphorus on Human Health
Harmful impact of white phosphorus remains in Water & Soil

Hence, the ethical concerns surrounding its use in populated areas are significant due to its potential to cause severe burns and suffering. 

Incendiary weapons:

  • The Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) imposes restrictions on the use of incendiary weapons, with the aim of safeguarding civilians. Protocol III under the CCW specifically deals with incendiary weapons.
    • Article 1 of this protocol defines an “incendiary weapon” as a weapon or munition primarily designed to set fire to objects or to cause burn injury to persons through the action of flame, heat, or combination thereof, produced by a chemical reaction of a substance delivered on the target.
    • Article 1(b)(i) includes an exemption in this classification for munitions that may cause unintended incendiary effects, such as illuminants, tracers, smoke, or signalling systems.
  • White phosphorus munitions are primarily intended to produce illuminating and smokescreen effects, with the incendiary aspects being secondary or unintentional. Consequently, incendiary munitions clearly fall within the exceptions outlined in Protocol III’s definition of an “incendiary weapon.” Hence, White phosphorus, although a chemical agent and toxic, is not covered by the CWC. 

Chemical Weapons Convention:

  • The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is an international treaty that establishes a comprehensive ban on the use of chemical weapons.
  • The treaty entered into force in 1997. It is administered by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), based in The Hague, Netherlands.

Key provisions of the CWC:

  • Prohibition: The CWC categorically prohibits the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, transfer, and use of chemical weapons and their precursors.
  • Destruction of Existing Stockpiles: States parties that possessed chemical weapons at the time of the treaty’s entry into force are obligated to destroy their stockpiles upon strict verification by the OPCW.
  • Monitoring: Monitoring the chemical industry to prevent new weapons from re-emerging. OPCW conducts inspections and verification procedures to ensure compliance with the convention. 
  • Assistance and Protection: The CWC also includes provisions for the protection and assistance of individuals and states affected by the use or threat of chemical weapons.
  • Universality: Fostering international cooperation to strengthen implementation of the Convention and promote the peaceful use of chemistry.

Way Forward

Protocol III does not effectively regulate multi-purpose munitions such as those containing white phosphorus, which can cause harm in the same way as the incendiary weapons it defines. The need of the hour is to strengthen Protocol III to remove its existing ambiguity and loopholes. This will facilitate effective enforcement with clearer rules as violations will become more easily identifiable.

Previous Year Question (2016)

Q. With reference to ‘Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)’, consider the following statements:

    1. It is an organization of the European Union in working relation with NATO and WHO.
    2. It monitors the chemical industry to prevent new weapons from emerging.
    3. It provides assistance and protection to States (Parties) against chemical weapons threats.

Which of the statements given above is/are correct?

(a) 1 only

(b) 2 and 3 only

(c) 1 and 3 only

(d) 1, 2 and 3

Answer: (b)

Practise Question:

Q. Consider the following statements with reference to White Phosphorous: 

    1. It is a gaseous substance that can be used as a multi-purpose munition.
    2. It is also used in the production of phosphoric acid and as a rodenticide.
    3. The use of White phosphorus as a chemical weapon is explicitly restricted under the Chemical Weapons Convention.

How many of the statements given above are correct?

(a) Only one

(b) Only two

(c) Only three

(d) None

Answer: (a) 

Source: The Hindu

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