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Public Health Statement for Hydrogen Sulfide
This Public Health Statement is the summary chapter from the Toxicological Profile for Hydrogen Sulfide. It is one in a series of Public Health Statements abo ut hazardous substances and their health effects. A shorter version, the ToxFAQs™, is also available. This information is important because this substance may harm you. The effects of exposure to any hazardous substance depend on the dose, the duration, how you are exposed, personal traits and habits, and whether other chemicals are present. For more information, call the ATSDR Information Center at 1-888-422-8737.
This public health statement tells you about hydrogen sulfide and the effects of exposure to it.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identifies the most serious hazardous waste sites in the nation. These sites are then placed on the National Priorities List (NPL) and are targeted for long-term federal clean-up activities. Hydrogen sulfide has been found in at least 35 of the 1,689 current or former NPL sites. Although the total number of NPL sites evaluated for this substance is not known, the possibility exists that the number of sites at which hydrogen sulfide is found may increase in the future as more sites are evaluated. This information is important because these sites may be sources of exposure and exposure to this substance may harm you.
When a substance is released either from a large area, such as an industrial plant, or from a container, such as a drum or bottle, it enters the environment. Such a release does not always lead to exposure. You can be exposed to a substance only when you come in contact with it. You may be exposed by breathing, eating, or drinking the substance, or by skin contact.
If you are exposed to hydrogen sulfide, many factors will determine whether you will be harmed. These factors include the dose (how much), the duration (how long), and how you come in contact with it. You must also consider any other chemicals you are exposed to and your age, sex, diet, family traits, lifestyle, and state of health.
1.1 What is hydrogen sulfide?
Hydrogen sulfide (H2S) is a poisonous, flammable, colorless gas with a characteristic odor of rotten eggs. Other names for hydrogen sulfide include hydrosulfuric acid, sewer gas, hydrogen sulphide, and stink damp. People usually can smell hydrogen sulfide at low concentrations in air, ranging from 0.0005 to 0.3 parts per million (ppm) (0.0005– 0.3 parts of hydrogen sulfide in 1 million parts of air); however, at high concentrations, a person might lose their ability to smell it. This can make hydrogen sulfide very dangerous.
Hydrogen sulfide occurs both naturally and from human-made processes. It is in the gases from volcanoes, sulfur springs, undersea vents, swamps, and stagnant bodies of water and in crude petroleum and natural gas. Hydrogen sulfide also is associated with municipal sewers and sewage treatment plants, swine containment and manure-handling operations, and pulp and paper operations. Industrial sources of hydrogen sulfide include petroleum refineries, natural gas plants, petrochemical plants, coke oven plants, food processing plants, and tanneries. Bacteria found in your mouth and gastrointestinal tract produce hydrogen sulfide during the digestion of food containing vegetable or animal proteins. Hydrogen sulfide is one of the principal components in the natural sulfur cycle.
1.2 What happens to hydrogen sulfide when it enters the environment?
Hydrogen sulfide is released primarily as a gas and spreads in the air. However, in some instances, it may be released in the liquid waste of an industrial facility or as the result of a natural event. When hydrogen sulfide is released as a gas, it remains in the atmosphere for an average of 18 hours. During this time, hydrogen sulfide can change into sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid. Hydrogen sulfide is soluble in water, and is a weak acid in water.
1.3 How might I be exposed to hydrogen sulfide?
Your body makes small amounts of hydrogen sulfide. Hydrogen sulfide is produced by the natural bacteria in your mouth and is a component of bad breath (halitosis). Breakdown of sulfurcontaining proteins by bacteria in the human intestinal tract also produces hydrogen sulfide. The levels of hydrogen sulfide in air and water are typically low. The amount of hydrogen sulfide in the air in the United States is 0.11–0.33 parts per billion (ppb) (one thousandth of a ppm). In undeveloped areas of the United States, concentrations have been reported at 0.02–0.07 ppb. The amount of hydrogen sulfide in surface water is low because hydrogen sulfide readily evaporates from water. Groundwater concentrations of hydrogen sulfide generally are less than 1 ppm; however, measured sulfur concentrations in surface and waste waters have ranged from slightly less than 1 to 5 ppm. Household exposures to hydrogen sulfide can occur through misuse of drain cleaning materials. Hydrogen sulfide can be found in well water and formed in hot water heaters, giving tap water a rotten egg odor. Cigarette smoke and emissions from gasoline vehicles contain hydrogen sulfide. The general population can be exposed to lower levels from accidental or deliberate release of emissions from pulp and paper mills; from natural gas drilling and refining operations; and from areas of high geothermal activity, such as hot springs.
People who work in certain industries can be exposed to higher levels of hydrogen sulfide than the general population. These industries include rayon textiles manufacturing, pulp and paper mills, petroleum and natural gas drilling operations, and waste water treatment plants. Workers on farms with manure storage pits or landfills can also be exposed to higher levels of hydrogen sulfide than the general population. As a member of the general public, you might be exposed to higher-than-normal levels of hydrogen sulfide if you live near a waste water treatment plant, a gas and oil drilling operation, a farm with manure storage or livestock confinement facilities, or a landfill. Exposure from these sources is mainly from breathing air that contains hydrogen sulfide.
1.4 How can hydrogen sulfide enter and leave my body?
Hydrogen sulfide enters your body primarily through the air you breathe. Much smaller amounts can enter your body through the skin. Hydrogen sulfide is a gas, so you would not likely be exposed to it by ingestion. When you breathe air containing hydrogen sulfide or when hydrogen sulfide comes into contact with skin, it is absorbed into the blood stream and distributed throughout the body. In the body, hydrogen sulfide is primarily converted to sulfate and is excreted in the urine. Hydrogen sulfide is rapidly removed from the body.
1.5 How can hydrogen sulfide affect my health?
Scientists use many tests to protect the public from harmful effects of toxic chemicals and to find ways for treating persons who have been harmed.
One way to learn whether a chemical will harm people is to determine how the body absorbs, uses, and releases the chemical. For some chemicals, animal testing may be necessary. Animal testing may also help identify health effects such as cancer or birth defects. Without laboratory animals, scientists would lose a basic method for getting information needed to make wise decisions that protect public health. Scientists have the responsibility to treat research animals with care and compassion. Scientists must comply with strict animal care guidelines because laws today protect the welfare of research animals.
Exposure to low concentrations of hydrogen sulfide may cause irritation to the eyes, nose, or throat. It may also cause difficulty in breathing for some asthmatics. Brief exposures to high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide (greater than 500 ppm) can cause a loss of consciousness. In most cases, the person appears to regain consciousness without any other effects. However, in some individuals, there may be permanent or long-term effects such as headaches, poor attention span, poor memory, and poor motor function. No health effects have been found in humans exposed to typical environmental concentrations of hydrogen sulfide (0.00011– 0.00033 ppm). Deaths due to breathing in large amounts of hydrogen sulfide have been reported in a variety of different work settings, including sewers, animal processing plants, waste dumps, sludge plants, oil and gas well drilling sites, and tanks and cesspools.
Very little information is available about health problems that could occur from drinking or eating something with hydrogen sulfide in it. Scientists have no reports of people poisoned by such exposures. Pigs that ate feed containing hydrogen sulfide experienced diarrhea for a few days and lost weight after about 105 days.
Scientists have little information about what happens when you are exposed to hydrogen sulfide by getting it on your skin, although they know that care must be taken with the compressed liquefied product to avoid frostbite. Hydrogen sulfide will irritate your eyes if you are exposed to the gas. These types of exposures are more common in certain kinds of jobs.
Hydrogen sulfide has not been shown to cause cancer in humans, and its possible ability to cause cancer in animals has not been studied thoroughly. Hydrogen sulfide has not been classified for its ability to cause or not cause cancer.
1.6 How can hydrogen sulfide affect children?
This section discusses potential health effects in humans from exposures during the period from conception to maturity at 18 years of age.
Children are likely to be exposed to hydrogen sulfide in the same manner as adults, except for adults at work. However, because hydrogen sulfide is heavier than air and because children are shorter than adults, children sometimes are exposed to more hydrogen sulfide than adults. There is very little information on possible health problems in children who have been exposed to hydrogen sulfide. Exposed children probably will experience effects similar to those experienced by exposed adults. Whether children are more sensitive to hydrogen sulfide exposure than adults or whether hydrogen sulfide causes birth defects in people is not known. The results of studies in animals suggest that exposure to low concentrations of hydrogen sulfide during pregnancy does not cause birth defects.
1.7 How can families reduce the risk of exposure to hydrogen sulfide?
If your doctor finds that you have been exposed to substantial amounts of hydrogen sulfide, ask whether your children might also have been exposed. Your doctor might need to ask your state health department to investigate.
Hydrogen sulfide is part of the natural environment; the general population will have some exposure to hydrogen sulfide. Families can be exposed to more hydrogen sulfide than the general population if they live near natural or industrial sources of hydrogen sulfide, such as hot springs, manure holding tanks, or pulp and paper mills. However, their exposure levels are unlikely to approach those that sicken people exposed at work. Families can reduce their exposure to hydrogen sulfide by avoiding areas that are sources of hydrogen sulfide. For example, individuals of families that live on farms can avoid manure storage areas where high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide may be found.
1.8 Is there a medical test to determine whether I have been exposed to hydrogen sulfide?
Hydrogen sulfide can be measured in exhaled air, but samples must be taken within 2 hours after exposure to be useful. A more reliable test to determine if you have been exposed to hydrogen sulfide is the measurement of increased thiosulfate levels in urine. This test must be done within 12 hours of exposure. Both tests require special equipment, which is not routinely available in a doctor’s office. Samples can be sent to a special laboratory for the tests. These tests can tell whether you have been exposed to hydrogen sulfide, but they cannot determine exactly how much hydrogen sulfide you have been exposed to or whether harmful effects will occur.
1.9 What recommendations has the federal government made to protect human health?
The federal government develops regulations and recommendations to protect public health. Regulations can be enforced by law. The EPA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are some federal agencies that develop regulations for toxic substances. Recommendations provide valuable guidelines to protect public health, but cannot be enforced by law. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) are two federal organizations that develop recommendations for toxic substances.
Regulations and recommendations can be expressed as “not-to-exceed” levels, that is, levels of a toxic substance in air, water, soil, or food that do not exceed a critical value that is usually based on levels that affect animals; they are then adjusted to levels that will help protect humans. Sometimes these not-to-exceed levels differ among federal organizations because they used different exposure times (an 8-hour workday or a 24-hour day), different animal studies, or other factors.
Recommendations and regulations are also updated periodically as more information becomes available. For the most current information, check with the federal agency or organization that provides it. Some regulations and recommendations for hydrogen sulfide include the following:
OSHA has established an acceptable ceiling concentration of 20 ppm for hydrogen sulfide in the workplace, with a maximum level of 50 ppm allowed for 10 minutes maximum duration if no other measurable exposure occurs. NIOSH has set a maximum Recommended Exposure Limit (REL) ceiling value of 10 ppm for 10 minutes maximum duration.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 2006. Toxicological profile for Hydrogen Sulfide. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.
Where can I get more information?
If you have questions or concerns, please contact your community or state health or environmental quality department or:
For more information, contact:
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Division of Toxicology and Human Health Sciences
1600 Clifton Road NE, Mailstop F-57
Atlanta, GA 30333
Phone: 1-800-CDC-INFO · 888-232-6348 (TTY)
ATSDR can also tell you the location of occupational and environmental health clinics. These clinics specialize in recognizing, evaluating, and treating illnesses resulting from exposure to hazardous substances.
Information line and technical assistance:
To order toxicological profiles, contact:
National Technical Information Service
5285 Port Royal Road
Springfield, VA 22161
Phone: 800-553-6847 or 703-605-6000
Some PDF files may be electronic conversions from paper copy or other electronic ASCII text files. This conversion may have resulted in character translation or format errors. Users are referred to the original paper copy of the toxicological profile for the official text, figures, and tables. Original paper copies can be obtained via the directions on the toxicological profile home page, which also contains other important information about the profiles.
The information contained here was correct at the time of publication. Please check with the appropriate agency for any changes to the regulations or guidelines cited.
- Page last reviewed: March 3, 2011
- Page last updated: March 3, 2011
- Content source: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry