Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 8, 2017

Phosphorus, phosphates, organophosphates and phospine

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 5:44 pm

The Assadist narratives on the Khan Sheikhoun sarin gas incident of April 4, 2017 have fallen into two categories. The first, similar to that put forward around the East Ghouta attack of August 21, 2013, claims that it was a “false flag” incident in which rebels gassed their own supporters to open the door for a “regime change” operation. The second, which has been put forward by various agencies and individuals such as Seymour Hersh, was that a legitimate bombing attack on a jihadist headquarters accidentally struck some materials that produced toxic fumes that killed 80 people and injured 600. For some such as Hersh, the materials were either relatively benign such as chlorine used to cleanse corpses in keeping with Islamic burial guidelines or fertilizers containing organophosphates—the same chemical compound that sarin gas is based on. (It happens that Muslims use soap and that it is pesticides that contain organophosphates, not fertilizers.) Others claim that the jihadist warehouse was a chemical weapons factory that incorporated phosphorus-based chemicals that were never intended to be used as pesticides or fertilizer but only to kill people—sarin gas on the cheap, so to speak.

When I noticed Hersh’s gaffe about fertilizer that his fact-checker Scott Ritter somehow managed to gloss over, I decided to take a closer look at the phosphorus/phosphate/organophosphate question since it is easy to get confused over the differences.

The first reference to organophosphates was made by ex-military intelligence Colonel Patrick Lang just three days after the attack and hewed closely to Hersh’s account. Lang said that the Russians briefed the USA that the attack would take place and that it was aimed at jihadist headquarters. Lang states:

The Syrian Air Force hit the target with conventional weapons. All involved expected to see a massive secondary explosion. That did not happen. Instead, smoke, chemical smoke, began billowing from the site. It turns out that the Islamic rebels used that site to store chemicals, not sarin, that were deadly. The chemicals included organic phosphates and chlorine and they followed the wind and killed civilians. [emphasis added]

Lawrence Wilkerson, an aide to Colin Powell who we are supposed to trust because he “learned” hard lessons from his boss’s role in fostering a “false flag” narrative about Saddam’s WMD’s, told essentially the same story but with a fudge factor:

And this warehouse was alleged to have ISIS supply [sic] in it and indeed it probably did. And some of these supplies were precursors for chemicals (or possibly an alternative they were phosphates for fertilizing)… Conventional bombs hit the warehouse and the wind dispersed these ingredients and killed some people.”

If they were “phosphates for fertilizing”, there was about as much possibility of transforming them into nerve gas as there was an alchemist turning lead into gold.

Then there is Scott Ritter, an WMD inspector who rose to glory for his opposition to Colin Powell’s bogus warnings. Unfortunately, he is turning in his own Powell-like performance to defend wrongly a Baathist dictator. Maybe he learned how to sling the bullshit from studying Powell’s UN speech that greased the slids for the invasion of Iraq.

In an April 9, 2017 Huffington Post article, Ritter wrote that the jihadists were building their own WMD’s with a combination of white phosphorus and chlorine that had been used already when they controlled East Aleppo. So when a bomb was dropped on their lair, it accidentally produced a toxic cloud from chemicals they had planned to use against the pluralist and democratic government in Damascus that has received an average of 98 percent of the vote ever since Hafez al-Assad seized power in a coup.

It is not exactly clear why white phosphorus would kill anybody in sarin gas like fashion since when it is not used to burn people through aerial bombardment, it is used mainly to produce smoke that can help to conceal troop movements. GlobalSecurity.org states that “Casualties from WP [white phosphorus] smoke have not occurred in combat operations” and that “irritation of the eyes and irritation of the mucous membranes are the most commonly seen injuries.”

As far as Ritter’s claim that rebels used white phosphorus/chlorine gas weaponry in East Aleppo, that is one only made by Syria, Iran and Russia. So it is not very surprising that he takes their word over what Trump calls “the fake news”.

On April 13, 2017 Gareth Porter, who was as ardent in his support for Pol Pot in the 1970s as he is today for Bashar al-Assad, told Truthout readers that it was not necessarily sarin gas that was used in Khan Sheikhoun. He came close to Ritter’s account but identified phosphine rather than white phosphorus as the smoking gun. He stated, “Both the Syrian Army and the Al-Nusra Front fighters in the Aleppo area, moreover, had abundant stocks of phosphine-producing smoke munitions in 2013” and that “phosphine-producing munitions can be lethal if humans are exposed in confined space”. Well, I don’t know how Porter defines confined space but by all accounts the toxic cloud swept across several miles. Maybe the jihadists were funded by the Rothschild bank to put a huge glass dome over the village to make sure that the “false flag” worked. Who knows?

Chemically, phosphine is produced by combining white phosphorus with sodium or potassium hydroxide in laboratory conditions. As is the case with Ritter’s accusation, there are no news accounts of phosphine weaponry being used in Aleppo by either Assad or rebels—not even by Sputnik news. Maybe it was a dream he had.

Let’s assume that in his confusion that Hersh meant to say “in many pesticides” rather than “in many fertilizers” in his Die Welt article.

The range of symptoms is, however, consistent with the release of a mixture of chemicals, including chlorine and the organophosphates used in many fertilizers, which can cause neurotoxic effects similar to those of sarin.

That still doesn’t pass the smell test as a chemistry PhD student specializing in biochemical weapons argued on BellingCat: “The most potent organophosphate pesticide, TEPP, is 10x less toxic than sarin. Parathion/E605 is 100-1000x less toxic. Neither is stored in bulk because neither is needed in huge quantities to cover an entire field.”

While I am no chemist by any stretch of the imagination, I would encourage others to spend several hours as I did trying to sort out the differences between all these terms that include “phos”.

  1. Phosphorus: This is an element that is key to human health. In fact, it is the second most prevalent element in your body next to calcium. In nature it exists in two forms: white and red. White phosphorus emits a slight glow when it is exposed to oxygen and hence has the prefix “phos”, which means light in Greek. As it is the second most common element in the human body, a German alchemist Hennig Brand extracted it from urine in an experiment in 1669. Even if he was an alchemist by profession, he was ten times as rigorous as the charlatans alluded to above.
  2. Phosphates: These are chemical compounds that contain phosphorus and are one of the key ingredients of fertilizers (the others are nitrogen and potassium compounds). It is also being used in Flint, Michigan to reduce the amount of lead that can get into pipes by building up what is called “mineral scale” that inhibits lead build-up.
  3. Organophosphates: This group of chemicals includes sarin gas as well as one called chlorpyrifos that was marketed by Dow Chemical under the brand names Lorsban (for agriculture) and Dursban (for residences) until the EPA banned it in 1996 because it was found to cause nerve damage to children. It probably comes as no surprise to learn that the new head of the EPA has overruled the ban and that is now legal again. The NY Times wrote that the ruling is more consequential than his “rolling back Obama administration rules related to coal-burning power plants and climate change”. With Dursban now for sale again in the USA and Trump giving Russia free rein in Syria, it won’t be long before chemically-induced fatalities will spike in both countries.
  4. Phosphines: The most practical use of phosphine is as a fumigant to get rid of rats and in minute quantities as a doping agent in electronic circuitry. Don’t interpret my reference to rats and doping to reflect on Gareth Porter.

Finally, in terms of whether bombing a warehouse in Khan Sheikhoun could have killed 80 people and wounded 600 as a result of a bomb dropped on pesticides containing organophosphates, it is worth mentioning that an accident such as this did occur not so long ago:

On November 1, 1986 there was an explosion and fire in the Sandoz chemical company in Basel, Switzerland that contained a virtual  cornucopia of organophosphates, tons of the stuff including propetamphos, parathion, disulfoton, thiometon, etrimphos and fenitrothion–all in pure form rather than the diluted commercial pesticides that were presumably stored in the Khan Sheikhoun warehouse. A huge cloud ascended over the city. Casualties? None. Fourteen firefighters were treated for exposure to the chemicals in a local hospital. Not a single one died.


  1. At this point if I didn’t oppose war and the death penalty I’d want to see sarin gas used on all of the Ba’athist amen corner. Unfortunately their inherit vicious amoral violence may bring this to be. I fear the time of reckoning is coming when, in order to defend humanity, we have to remove from the planet all the Christian supremacists, all the white nationalists, all the jihadi, all the genocidal Hindu nationalists, all the members of the dictators’ club, etc. etc. etc. There will be a future of inclusion, cooperation, equality, and diversity. Unfortunately I fear it will be steeped in blood.

    Comment by Milkweed Dirge — July 9, 2017 @ 3:11 am

  2. “[Phosphates are] also being used in Flint, Michigan to reduce the amount of lead that can get into pipes by building up what is called “mineral scale” that inhibits lead build-up. ”
    The pipes are made of lead, if they are the usual old-fashioned water pipes. The mineral scale coats the pipes and stops the lead getting into the water. This process occurs naturally with hard water.

    Comment by Eco — July 9, 2017 @ 7:24 pm

  3. […] though I am obviously not a chemist. Under the section that dealt with phosphine, I referred to Porter’s initial foray into this […]

    Pingback by Gareth Porter: master alchemist | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — September 15, 2017 @ 2:30 pm

  4. […] There were also clashing versions over what caused the fatalities. Some like Postol made the case for rebels detonating a ground-level bomb that sprayed sarin gas while others like Gareth Porter argued that it was the accidental bombing of a warehouse that contained phosphine-producing smoke munitions. This accident produced a toxic cloud that killed a bunch of locals supposedly. Seymour Hersh, addled as ever, theorized that the toxic cloud probably came from a bomb dropped on organophosphate-based fertilizer used by local farmers or chlorine used to clean corpses prior to Islamic burial (they use soap and water instead.) He likely meant to say pesticides rather than fertilizers, as other “experts” claimed, since this is generally where you will find organophosphates in a farm belt. That bombing fertilizer is incapable of generating toxic fumes hardly mattered to Hersh, whose investigations of such incidents is as preposterous as Postol’s. Additionally, even when pesticides explode, you don’t find such a lethal outcome as I pointed out here. […]

    Pingback by The shifting sands of Assadist propaganda | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — April 29, 2018 @ 2:15 pm

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