US ATSDR Toxicity Profile

The United States Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry have published an extremely comprehensive profile of White Phosphorus, dated September 1997.

Their website addresses the following questions –

Q. What happens to white phosphorus when it enters the environment?

  • White phosphorus can enter the environment when it is made, used in manufacturing or by the military, or accidentally spilled during transport and storage.
  • It can be found in the water and bottom sediment of rivers and lakes near facilities that make or use it.
  • In the air, white phosphorus reacts rapidly with oxygen to produce relatively harmless chemicals within minutes.
  • In water, white phosphorus reacts with oxygen within hours or days.
  • In water with low oxygen, white phosphorus may degrade to a highly toxic compound called phosphine, which eventually evaporates to the air and is changed to less harmful chemicals.
  • White phosphorus can build up slightly in the bodies of fish that live in contaminated lakes or streams.
  • In soil, white phosphorus may stick to particles and be changed within a few days to less harmful compounds.
  • In deep soil or sediments with little oxygen, white phosphorus may remain unchanged for many years.

Q. How can white phosphorus affect my health?

  • Little information is available about the health effects that may be caused by white phosphorus. Most of what is known about the effects of breathing white phosphorus is from studies of workers.
  • Most of what is known about the effects of eating white phosphorus is from reports of people eating rat poison or fireworks that contained it.
  • Breathing white phosphorus for short periods may cause coughing and irritation of the throat and lungs.
  • Breathing white phosphorus for long periods may cause a condition known as “phossy jaw” which involves poor wound healing of the mouth and breakdown of the jaw bone.
  • Eating or drinking small amounts of white phosphorus may cause liver, heart, or kidney damage, vomiting, stomach cramps, drowsiness, or death. We do not know what the effects are from eating or drinking very small amounts of white phosphorus-containing substances over long periods of time.
  • Skin contact with burning white phosphorus may burn skin or cause liver, heart, and kidney damage.

We do not know whether or not white phosphorus can affect the ability to have children or cause birth defects in people.


Q. Is there a medical test to show whether I’ve been exposed to white phosphorus?

  • There is no medical test that shows if you have been exposed to white phosphorus. However, the above health effects may lead your doctor to suspect that you have been exposed if you have a history of exposure.

The toxicology profile for white phosphorus, a huge 248 page report, is primarily a literature search that discusses what is known about effects of white phosphorus exposure in great detail. A number of references are made to the 1962 Albright and Wilson study of phosphorus necrosis of the jaw, Hughes et al Br, j. Ind med 19; 83-99.

Some important statements (limited here to the difficulty of detecting white phosphorus in a carcass, and the length of time that elemental white phosphorus may exist after dumping) include –

Section 1.3 (p.2) states “However, in deeper soil and the bottom deposits of rivers and lakes where there is no oxygen, white phosphorus may remain for several thousand years.

Section 2.1 (p.8) notes that “Following absorption, white phosphorus stays in the blood for several days and is slowly oxidized to hypophosphoms and phosphorous acids”.

Section 2.2.2 (p.32) notes that in humans, oral exposure to white phosphorus results causes vomiting, which expels much of the white phosphorus, making measurements of the dosage difficult if not impossible.

Section (p.88) states “…it is reasonable to conclude that approximately 20% of the administered white phosphorus is excreted as phosphate in urine within 4 hours post-dosing, showing that in viva metabolism of white phosphorus is extremely rapid.

Section 2.5 (p.96) states “Biologically, white phosphorus is highly lipid-soluble indicating that it is probably absorbed easily via all routes of exposure, although this has not yet been demonstrated. Most of the absorbed white phosphorus is then probably quickly broken down by some of the inorganic reactions described above.

Section 2.6.1 (p.121) discusses biomarkers used to identify or quantify exposure to white phosphorus, but concludes that while there are “a few individual clinical signs or effects [that] may be useful biomarkers of exposure”,  “There are no known quantitative biomarkers unique to acute oral white phosphorus poisoning in an individual.

Section 2.10.2 (p.141) discusses where more investigation would be useful, and in relation to “biomarkers of exposure and effect” states “Because little is known about the fate of white phosphorus in the body, there are no substance-quantity or substance-presence tests that are currently available that indicate white phosphorus intoxication.”.

Section 5.1 (p.157) details the potential for human exposure to white phosphorus, and states “The half-life of elemental phosphorus in water is 2-20 hours and 3-7 days in soil. However, the half-life of elemental phosphorus in the anoxic zones of water, sediment, and soil can exceed 2 years and may be ≤10,000 years.

Section (p.171) discusses white phosphorus degradation in sediment and soil, and repeats “…in the absence of oxidation and biodegradation reactions in anaerobic zones of soil and sediment, the half-life of elemental phosphorus could be 10 to 10,000 years…”, also repeated on p.179, where the “environmental fate” of white phosphorus is discussed, adding “…anaerobic zones of soil and sediment may act as a sink for elemental phosphorus.”.


What this means is that white phosphorus, dumped in conditions where it may be truly isolated from air, may remain in the highly toxic white phosphorus state for a VERY LONG, LONG time.

BUT that without observing the symptoms of white phosphorus poisoning prior to death, the chemical can be very difficult to detect in carcasses after a scant few days.