What makes white phosphorous toxic?

I mean it causes liver and kidney damage, and altered blood coagulation, but it is hard to find anything about what biochemical mechanism this poison uses to kill liver and kidney cells and why the liver is not capable to neutralize it even in a 50mg/kg dose (LD50 in rats). It would take just a simple oxidation to convert it to phosphate, which is commonly used by living cells.


I think the main cause that white phosphorous is so toxic that it is not something common in the environment, so there was no evolutional pressure to adapt to it. The human body can deal with it relative fast, but it damages cellular organelles and causes possibly fatal liver and kidney damage in hours. Some of the metabolites are even more toxic and they can cause arrhythmia and disturb the CNS. Because the molecular mechanism of toxicity is still mostly unknown and there is only a short time to treat people before liver and kidney damage, currently I think there is no way to save somebody exposured to a high dose of white phosphorus.


1 Answer 1


There seems to be some difference on the development of symptoms depending on the route of uptake, but eventually poisoning with white phosphorus leads to kidney and liver damage.

Oral uptake leads to gastro-intestinal problems like abdominal cramps, nausea and vomitting, if you take up low doses chronically, this may lead to phosphorus laden stool (also called "smoking stool syndrome").

Since white phosphorus will ignite when it comes in contact with air, skin contact often leads to severe chemical burns. White phosphorus is also highly soluble in lipids and is therefore suspected to cross through our skin rather fast, leading to absorption in the body and subsequent poisoning by liver and kidney damage.

See reference 1 for a short overview and reference 2 for extensive information.

Regarding the exact molecular mechanisms is surprisingly little known and published. It is clear that poisoning with white phosphorus causes Triglycerides to accumulate in the liver, causing the fatty liver syndrome. Depending on the source it is also speculated that carbohydrate and/or protein synthesis in the liver is also affected (see for example here or here). Mostly this is explained by the high reduction potential of the phosphorus, which disturbs the fine balanced metabolic pathways. Finally this seems to leads to liver failure (see also reference 3).

According to the toxicology profile (reference 2) the damaged protein synthesis in the liver leads to fatty liver very fast.

Liver damage in animals exposed to white phosphorus progresses rapidly. Four hours after receiving a single oral dose of white phosphorus, minimal fatty changes in hepatocytes were observed; by 12 hours fatty changes were extensive (Ghoshal et al. 1969). Exposure to white phosphorus has been shown to damage the rough endoplasmic reticulum and cause a disaggregation of polyribosomes (Ganote and Otis 1969; Pam et al. 1972). This damage results in impairment of protein synthesis, in particular, a decrease in the synthesis of the apolipoprotein portion of very low density lipoproteins (VLDL), which are required for the transport of triglycerides. A significant decrease in protein synthesis has been detected as early as 3 hours after oral exposure (Barker et al. 1963). The smooth endoplasmic reticulum is also involved in the formation of the VLDLs, and damage to the smooth endoplasmic reticulum also impairs the formation of VLDLs. The net result of these ultrastructural changes is an accumulation of triglycerides in the liver (Ghoshal et al. 1969). This results in steatosis and fibrosis, which is one of the mechanisms involved in the hepatotoxicity of white phosphorus. The mechanism behind the damage to the endoplasmic reticulum is not known; also, it is not known whether white phosphorus itself or a metabolite of white phosphorus is the damaging agent. In addition to these damages, white phosphorus or a metabolite causes damage to the mitochondria and nuclei in the livers of animals orally exposed to white phosphorus (Ghoshal et al. 1969). The damage to the mitochondria may impair the cell’s ability to produce ATP, thus resulting in necrosis of the cell.

Another possible (and additional) toxic effect may be traced to the (possibly enzymatic) generation of phosphines from phosphorus and water which are highly toxic to the central nervous system (here my source is only german, you can find it here). According to reference 4 phosphines are interfering with the COS gasotransmitter signaling. They can cause cardiac problems by this mechanism. Phosphines smell garlic like, this is an observation often made, when victims of white phosphorus poisonings are authopsied.


  1. White Phosphorus Exposure
  3. Biochemical changes associated with acute phosphorus poisoning (in humans)
  4. Sulfurous Gases As Biological Messengers and Toxins: Comparative Genetics of Their Metabolism in Model Organisms
  • $\begingroup$ Nice, altough if I understand the answer correctly I am surprised. Isn't breath the most dangerous&important route of uptake ? $\endgroup$
    – user38033
    Mar 16, 2018 at 18:03
  • $\begingroup$ While this is all true, the question is about how it causes liver damage. Probably I should rephrase my question if this was not obvious. $\endgroup$
    – inf3rno
    Mar 16, 2018 at 18:26
  • $\begingroup$ @inf3rno Yes, that would be good. It wasn't clear to me. I will have a look into this, too and edit the answer. But this will take a day or two. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Mar 16, 2018 at 19:08
  • $\begingroup$ Hard to find anything in the topic, but this might be interesting: books.google.hu/… $\endgroup$
    – inf3rno
    Mar 16, 2018 at 19:57
  • $\begingroup$ It references this article: sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0014480072900354 $\endgroup$
    – inf3rno
    Mar 16, 2018 at 20:53

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