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White phosphorus, which is allegedly used by Israel in airstrikes on Gaza and southern Lebanon, is a controversial weapon. While international conventions allow its use on military targets, it is prohibited for civilian populations due to its toxicity and the potential for lethal burns. The lesser-known environmental impact of this phenomenon can also have significant repercussions on ecosystems.
As part of its war with Hamas, Israel has allegedly used white phosphorus against civilians. According to Human Rights Watch, this controversial weapon was also used by the Hebrew State in southern Lebanon in response to Hezbollah’s attacks. In a publication dated October 12, the NGO maintains, with supporting evidence, that the Israeli army utilized white phosphorus bombs at least on October 10 and 11.
If, per international conventions, white phosphorus is permissible for use against military positions, its application on civilians is strictly prohibited due to its extreme hazards and toxicity. “Upon contact with the skin, it literally dissolves it. Its burns can penetrate deeply into the bones, resulting in severe injuries that may prove fatal. If it enters the body, white phosphorus can be lethal to the liver, stomach and most major organs,” explained Najat Saliba, a Lebanese MP and professor of analytical chemistry, when interviewed by This is Beirut.
Upon contact with a surface, white phosphorus undergoes a reaction with oxygen and ignites at temperatures ranging from 800 °C to 900 °C, which is equivalent to the intense heat generated by an industrial furnace. This level of heat is more than sufficient to obliterate any living organism.
Besides being extremely toxic to humans, phosphorus is also not less harmful to the environment. Its effects can be devastating for forests, as it easily ignites and burns them. Charbel Afif, an expert in air pollution and head of the chemistry department at Saint Joseph University in Beirut, explained to This is Beirut that “phosphorus can also infiltrate the soil, putting underground ecosystems at risk and severely impacting agriculture. A field that is impacted may even experience infertility or, at the very least, be rendered unusable for several months.
Additionally, white phosphorus poses a significant threat to aquatic environments. Upon entering the water, it elevates phosphate levels, resulting in eutrophication and subsequent algae blooms. The impact of this can be quite prolonged, spanning at least many months, and renders the habitat inhospitable for fish,” Afif went on to explain.
Although it is highly dangerous at the slightest contact, white phosphorus can also function as a delayed-action bomb. In some cases, it may not ignite immediately after exposure to oxygen if a natural protective layer forms, causing its particles to settle on the ground, trees or in the water. Afif went on to say that “the lingering hazard remains for approximately 10 days. If someone accidentally touches it during this period, they are at risk of suffering severe burns.”
“Generally speaking, the quantities of phosphorus that do not undergo reaction in the atmosphere and result in deposits are minimal and barely discernible to the naked eye. The public should remain cautious for a minimum of two weeks to avoid any immediate impacts”, he indicated.
What should one do in the event of contamination? Unfortunately, there is no miracle solution, according to Afif. He further stated that “in the event of soil contamination, the process of turning it over to minimize direct contact is feasible; however, it is advisable to wait for a period of two weeks before taking any action. In instances of significant phosphorus deposits, it is recommended to seek the assistance of specialists, such as those from the Ministry of Environment or Agriculture. They possess the expertise needed to oversee surface treatment and facilitate the return of ecosystems to their natural state.”
To prevent the use of white phosphorus, “it is paramount to uphold international treaties and, above all, refrain from inciting wars. We vehemently oppose the establishment of a front on our southern border,” Saliba emphasized. Whether this aspiration will become a reality or not is yet to be determined.
Despite numerous requests for clarification regarding the specific areas in southern Lebanon that have been affected by white phosphorus and the quantities utilized, neither the Lebanese Army (LAF) nor UNIFIL have provided any response.