White Phosphorous Question (a bit morbid)

In this BBC article concerning an Italian documentary which alleges U.S. troops used white phosphorous as a chemical weapon against insurgents in Fallujah, the author reports that:

My question is simply ‘How is this possible?’. How can a chemical inflict a burn on human skin without damaging clothes?

The answer seems obvious. After all, boiling water will burn human skin without damaging clothes. However, white phosphorous is very different from boiling water. This Wikipedia article states that:

So, bottom line is that white phosphorous is a chemical that bursts into flame at room temperature. If this is so, then how come the Iraqi’s allegedly killed by it in Fallujah had their clothes intact?

White phosphorous, or willy peter as we used to call it, is (or was in Vietnam anyway. I suppose they still use it.) often used by artillery for the first shots. It gives off a highly visible white cloud which makes it easy to spot. You can the correct the range until you’re on target.

Also WP grenades were used to mark LZs for helicopters.

I’m calling bullshit on this. WP burns fast and hot. There’s no way.

There is no way for WP to mimic the effects of spontaneous human combustion.

See, we don’t know whether or not the WP grenade smokes cigarettes.

i’bve heard the same statement made about the Italian documentary on French TV. Plus pictures of the bodies. Nothing appeared intact to me, though. Actually I couldn’t tell whether they had clothes or not.

WP would not leave the bodies looking like that. Normal decomposition would.

I’m studying Chemical and Biological weapons in my grad school.

The deputy director of our nonproliferation center gave a guest lecture last night, and mentioned the italian report.

He seemed to believe that the reports of corpses burned but clothes intact were, in fact, decomposed bodies, rather than some egregious effect of the WP (which is nasty enough if it hits you, but would burn the clothes as well).

I am wondering if, the reports are true, that we are seeing the effect of chemical burns rather than the direct thermal effects of phosphorous. When phosphorus burns it gives off an intenses white smoke of phosphorous oxide that in dry desert conditions will drift for quite a while. It is a very potent acidic compound that on contact with the skin will give severe burns. However, will do little to nothing I suspect to linen clothing. Anyone walking through the smoke (and breathing it) could be in big trouble, even fatally.

wiki article on WP incendiaries

How does WP differ from the phosphor found in flourescent light bulbs?

a phosphor is any compound which fluoresces (glows). The vast majority do not contain phosphorous. They were names after phosphorous which does also glow in contact with air.

The photographs might be misleading, consider:

-The clothes in question are probably dull/dark in colour and dirty, so they aren’t necessarily going to conspicuously show if the corpse inside of them simply decayed
-Ordinary decomposition/dessication can result in a burnt-looking corpse.

They might well have been killed by white phosphorus, but that doesn’t mean the images (which I will admit I haven’t seen) are necessarily showing the immediate results of the chemical.

Actually, I think boiling water will scald human skin, and then cook the flesh by head-denaturing the proteins. That’s very different from flesh being ‘burnt off’. Try it with a joint of meat sometime - you can boil it to shreds, but it won’t burn unless the water all evaporates away.

Certainly doesn’t sound like any incendiary or chemicla agent I have ever heard of. The only thing I can think of that would do this would be some combination of chemicals, enzymes, or very chemical/heat resistant clothing. Maybe a concentrated acid would burn flesh but not destroy nylon clothing, for instance. Need input from a chemist, I think.

Actually it’s kind of like walking into tear gas.

Very unpleasant, dangerous for folks with breathing problems, but not likely to kill a healthy human.

I survived an encounter with white phosphorus burning from a derailed train car. City had to be evacuated, about 300 people ended up hospitalized with minor ailments, but no deaths.

Moderator Note

While I’m no lover of Wikipedia myself, hyperbole will get you nowhere, son.

If you want to rant about Wikipedia, start your own thread in the BBQ Pit.

samclem GQ moderator

In the USAF I’ve fired hundreds of WP rockets at various targets, some real, most not. I’ve also been out on the ground and seen the occasional WP casualty, mostly animal.

Somebody who gets a direct hit with WP gets burnt. So do their cloths, fur, and the surrounding bushes. Get burnt enough & you/it die. BFD.

The idea that WP is somehow an evil or chemical weapon on a par with mustard gas is nuts. Fire is fire, explosions are explosions, and wounds are wounds.

When any weapon does its thing, there’s a region right close by that gets utterly destroyed. For a pistol bullet that region mught be 3/4" in diameter whereas for a big nuke it might be 2 miles. And there’s a much larger region that’s utterly unaffected, say everthing 2+ feet away for the bullet & 25+ miles away (upwind) for the nuke.

All the horror lies in the intermediate range, particularly near the outer limits of the effects. That’s where you get ugly wounds, and the random hit or miss nature. Shrapnel is partly so terrifying because after the blast you’re fine, the guy next to you is dead, and the guy next to him is missing most of an arm. Why me? Why him? Anything that random is unnerving.

Non-fatal WP wounds are ugly,somewhat uglier than mechanically equivalent metal-caused wounds. OTOH, because WP warheads are less powerful than corresponding HE weapons, the wounding perimeter of the blast effect zone is much smaller. Dumping a WP round in a crowd is gonna be ugly, but dropping the same size HE anti-personel round in the same spot is gonna kill more folks and wound more folks, some pretty greivously.

If forced to chose between being X feet away from a WP hit or an HE hit of the same size shell/rocket, I’d chose WP every time. Most times that’d be a winning decision.

WP isn’t a toy or a non-lethal like tear gas or stage smoke, but it isn’t Sarin either. The sensational breathless editorializing: “kills people, leaves clothes!!” is somebody inventing “facts” to push an agenda.

yes my later searches confirm that my initial guess was wrong and that phoshorous smoke is inlikely to kill or seriously harm you unless you were in a confined space and couldn’t get away.

However there have been reports of US troops (see wiki article above) using the WP smoke bombs to flush people out of houses. If a house got a direct hit inside it is just possible that someone could be concussed or couldn’t get out quick enough to do some nasty damage. Phosphorous is fairly toxic in reasonable doses too.

Having said all that, I am quite skeptical about the italian report, and would need to see more evidence.