Phosphorus bombs: What you should know about Russia’s alleged use

According to Ukrainian claims, Russian forces have used phosphorus bombs on several occasions in different areas of the country.

Most recently, on Friday, Ukraine’s army accused Russia of dropping munitions on Snake Island after Moscow withdrew its troops from the Black Sea outpost.

Anton Gerashchenko, a Ukrainian official, said they were used in Mariupol in May, a city now fully under Russian control.

And a month after the invasion began, on March 24, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in an address to NATO that “Russian phosphorus bombs” had been used that morning – and had killed adults and children – but did not provide further details.

Restricted but not illegal under international law, the alleged use of white phosphorus bombs marks a disturbing dimension to Russia’s war on its neighbour.

While they can be used on battlefields, they cannot be used in civilian areas.

Phosphorus bombs contain a mixture of white phosphorus – which is not banned as a chemical weapon under international conventions – and rubber and can either be used as incendiary weapons or to create smoke screens.

The United States, Israel, Syria and Turkey are among the nations that have previously caused controversy with their alleged use.

“Phosphorus bombs is a largely a popular term applied to the use of white phosphorus as either intentional part of an incendiary munition (rocket, shell, mortar) or an unintentional part of munition intended to use to generate smoke or illuminate an area,” Margaret E Kosal, an associate professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology, told Al Jazeera.

The mixture of white phosphorus and rubber ignites on contact with oxygen in the air. A flame of up to 1,300 degrees Celsius (2,372 degrees Fahrenheit) is generated, accompanied by dense, white smoke.

According to Dan Kaszeta, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, this is why phosphor remains “one of the fastest ways to make highly dense and effective smoke screens.”

White phosphorus munitions have been in the “arsenal of most major armies over the last century”, he said.

But when used on civilians, phosphorus bombs can have a devastating effect.

“White phosphorus can burn people to the bone, smoulder inside the body, and reignite when bandages are removed,” according to Human Rights Watch. “Toxic to humans, white phosphorus can seep into the bloodstream through the skin, poisoning the kidneys, liver, and heart and causing multiple organ failure. People can die simply from inhaling white phosphorus.”

The fumes released in white phosphorus attacks can also injure or severely irritate the eyes and make them highly sensitive to light, the group says on its website, adding: “Finally, exposure to white phosphorus can result in facial paralysis, seizures, and fatal heartbeat irregularities.”

Fires started by phosphorus bombs cannot be extinguished with water but can only be smothered by means such as sand.

“The issue with white phosphorous is that it makes its smoke through burning. They burn extremely hot, and are difficult to extinguish,” said Kaszeta.

What is particularly cruel is that the mixture of white phosphorus and rubber contained in the bombs sticks to the victims’ skin. Once in contact with phosphorus, the individual will attempt to knock out the burning spots. However, since phosphorus bombs are mixed with rubber gelatine, the viscous mass sticks to the skin worsening the effect.

“If some white phosphorus remains embedded in the body, it can re-ignite if re-exposed to air (such as during medical care). It is incredibly nasty, causing debilitatingly painful burns if a person comes into contact with it,” Kosal noted.

White phosphorus usually produces third-degree burns, sometimes to the bone. Victims of an attack are likely to either die slowly from their burns or inhalation of the toxic fumes. Those who survive usually have to struggle with severe impairments for the rest of their lives, such as liver, heart or kidney damage, warns The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).

“Depending on how they are used and under what conditions the potential harm from white phosphorus munitions can be minimised or eliminated … or if they are intentionally misused, it can do significant harm,” said Kosal

Whether Russia has actually used phosphorus bombs can be neither confirmed nor disproved at this stage. However, there are various pictures and videos that reportedly show its use.

One video in question, tweeted in March by the head of the prosecutor’s office of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, Igor Ponochovnyi, reportedly shows a phosphorus bomb exploding.

Moreover, Russian troops are said to have used phosphorus bombs in eastern Ukraine.

Police chief Oleksij Bilochyzky posted on Facebook that the bombs were recently used in the village of Pospana – about 100km (62 miles) west of Luhansk.

Emina Dzheppar, Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister, tweeted a video in March showing a rain of lights in a dark sky.

“Invaders used phosphorus bombs. When it explodes, it disperses a substance with a more than 800 degrees combustion temperature,” Dzheppar wrote.

But as the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Kosal noted, “there is no way to currently verify” such videos.

“White phosphorous was prolifically used in dozens if not hundreds of conflicts in the modern era,” said Kaszeta. “Its use as a smoke-producing agent was reduced but not eliminated by the advent of chemical smokes such as hexachloroethane.”

The US used phosphorus bombs during the Iraq war which lasted from 2003 to 2011.

During the 2006 Lebanon War and in the 2009 Gaza War, Israel dropped phosphorus bombs, according to its own statement, for immediate smoke generation.

“In and of themselves, [phosphorus bombs] are not banned as long as they are primarily used for creating smoke. Contrary to folklore and urban legend, they are not ‘chemical weapons’ because they do not work as poisons. They cause damage by being hot, making their place in international law less prominent than chemical weapons. The use of incendiary weapons is covered by a different international treaty – the so-called Protocol 3, but few countries have signed or ratified that treaty,” Kaszeta noted.

While the use of phosphorus bombs, in general, is allowed under international law, the use of incendiary weapons against civilians or in a manner in which so-called “collateral damage” could easily occur, as reportedly happened in Ukraine, is prohibited, in line with the prohibition on indiscriminate attacks in the 1977 Protocols Additional to the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

“Intentionally targeting civilians with any lethal military weapon is prohibited by international law,” said Kosal.

However, in the fog of war, proving intent is complicated, if not impossible, she added.

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