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ToxFAQs™ for Hydrogen Sulfide
This fact sheet answers the most frequently asked health questions about hydrogen sulfide. For more information, you may call the ATSDR Information Center at 1-888-422-8737. This fact sheet is one in a series of summaries about hazardous substances and their health effects. 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.
Hydrogen sulfide occurs naturally and is also produced by human activities. Just a few breaths of air containing high levels of hydrogen sulfide gas can cause death. Lower, longer-term exposure can cause eye irritation, headache, and fatigue. Hydrogen sulfide has been found in at least 35 of the 1,689 National Priorities List sites identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
What is hydrogen sulfide?
Hydrogen sulfide (H2S) occurs naturally in crude petroleum, natural gas, volcanic gases, and hot springs. It can also result from bacterial breakdown of organic matter. It is also produced by human and animal wastes. Bacteria found in your mouth and gastrointestinal tract produce hydrogen sulfide from bacteria decomposing materials that contain vegetable or animal proteins. Hydrogen sulfide can also result from industrial activities, such as food processing, coke ovens, kraft paper mills, tanneries, and petroleum refineries.
Hydrogen sulfide is a flammable, colorless gas with a characteristic odor of rotten eggs. It is commonly known as hydrosulfuric acid, sewer gas, and stink damp. People can smell it at low levels.
What happens to hydrogen sulfide when it enters the environment?
- Hydrogen sulfide is released primarily as a gas and spreads in the air.
- Hydrogen sulfide remains in the atmosphere for about 18 hours.
- When released as a gas, it will change into sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid.
- In some instances, it may be released as a liquid waste from an industrial facility.
How might I be exposed to hydrogen sulfide?
- You may be exposed to hydrogen sulfide from breathing contaminated air or drinking contaminated water.
- Individuals living near a wastewater treatment plant, a gas and oil drilling operation, a farm with manure storage or livestock confinement facilities, or a landfill may be exposed to higher levels of hydrogen sulfide.
- You can be exposed at work if you work in the rayon textiles, petroleum and natural gas drilling and refining, or wastewater treatment industries. Workers on farms with manure storage pits or landfills can be exposed to higher levels of hydrogen sulfide.
- A small amount of hydrogen sulfide is produced by bacteria in your mouth and gastrointestinal tract.
How can hydrogen sulfide affect my health?
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 and possibly death. In most cases, the person appears to regain consciousness without any other effects. However, in many 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).
Scientists have no reports of people poisoned by ingesting hydrogen sulfide. 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 frost bite.
How likely is hydrogen sulfide to cause cancer?
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. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), and the EPA have not classified hydrogen sulfide for carcinogenicity.
How does hydrogen sulfide affect children?
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. Health problems in children who have been exposed to hydrogen sulfide have not been studied much. Exposed children probably will experience effects similar to those experienced by exposed adults. Whether children are more sensitive to hydrogen sulfide than adults or whether hydrogen sulfide causes birth defects in people is not known.
How can families reduce the risk of exposure to hydrogen sulfide?
Families can be exposed if they live near natural or industrial sources of hydrogen sulfide, such as hot springs, manure holding tanks, or pulp and paper mills. Families may want to restrict visits to these places.
Is there a medical test to show whether I've 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 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 can not determine exactly how much hydrogen sulfide you have been exposed to or whether harmful effects will occur.
Has the federal government made recommendations to protect human health?
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set an acceptable ceiling limit for hydrogen sulfide of 20 parts hydrogen sulfide per 1 million parts of air (20 ppm) in the workplace.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends a 10-minute ceiling limit of 10 ppm in the workplace.
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: October 19, 2011
- Content source: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry