White phosphorus

Evidence of the use of white phosphorus by Israel in its war on Gaza is everywhere. Videos, photographs and accounts by bloggers and reporters are more than sufficient.

Medical evidence on the effects and management of white phosphorus is scarce. Pubmed returns 14 papers with search criteria "`white phosphorus' burn" most of them describing the experiences of burn units along its years of operation with people who contacted the material accidentally.

White phosphorus is an extremely menacing substance whether it is used on a densely populated area or not.

It ignites spontaneously at temperatures above 34°C, producing fumes with a garlic-like odour and phosphoric acid which promotes further burning. It can be extinguished with water but will reignite again when dry.

So if a person comes in contact with phosphorus. He will suffer burns that might start again spontaneously inside his own wound. Even hours later.

A solemn account of the properties of white phosphorous burns is mentioned in the `In Gaza' blog:

At Shifa hospital, Dr. Nafez Abu Shabaan, Head of the Burn Department, told me they’ve received some burn cases unlike anything they’ve seen. “We’re not familiar with phosphorous burns, but some patients have very deep burns, very strange burns.” He cites the case of a patient sent for a brain scan who three hours later, still alive, “came back smoking”.

A study by Chou et al. stresses on the importance of cooling affected areas with tap water and prompt removal of phosphorus particles with mechanical debridement.

White phosphorus is handled under water in its manufacturing process. So continuously soaking the wound with water should be the first measure.

Chou suggests the use of 1% Copper Sulphate solution to prevent re-ignition of phosphorus inside the burn wound. The Copper Sulphate will produce a compound that will not re-ignite and will stain it for easy removal.

Minimal exposure to white phosphorus can cause sudden death. The mechanism is believed to be due absorption of the body's phosphorus compounds from the wound area. Which may cause fatal cardiac arrhythmia.

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