Hydrogen sulfide gas is also known as “sewer gas” because it is often produced by the breakdown of waste material. At low levels, hydrogen sulfide gas has a strong odor similar to rotten eggs. You can smell hydrogen sulfide gas at lower levels than may cause health effects, so smelling the gas does not always mean that it will make you sick. However, at higher levels, your nose can become overwhelmed by the gas and you cannot smell it. At higher levels, hydrogen sulfide gas can make you sick and could be fatal.
What is hydrogen sulfide gas?
Hydrogen sulfide gas occurs naturally in crude petroleum, natural gas, volcanic gases and hot springs. It can also result from bacterial breakdown of organic matter and be produced by human and animal wastes.
Hydrogen sulfide gas also can result from industrial activities, such as food processing, coke ovens, kraft paper mills, tanneries and petroleum refineries.
Hydrogen sulfide is colorless, flammable gas under normal conditions. It is commonly known as hydrosulfuric acid, stink damp and sewer gas.
How can I be exposed to hydrogen sulfide gas?
The main way you can be exposed to hydrogen sulfide gas is by breathing it. You also can be exposed to hydrogen sulfide gas through skin and eye contact.
Exposure to hydrogen sulfide gas can occur in the home and in the workplace. In the home, exposure may occur because of faulty plumbing. Sewer drains that have dry traps can allow hydrogen sulfide gas to enter the home.
Workers involved in occupations such as livestock farming, sewage treatment and oil refining may be exposed to hydrogen sulfide gas at work. If you live in a neighborhood near these types of industry, you could be exposed to hydrogen sulfide by breathing the gas released into the air from activities at these facilities.
How can hydrogen sulfide gas affect my health?
Hydrogen sulfide can affect several different systems in the body. Exposure to lower concentrations can cause eye irritation, a sore throat and cough, shortness of breath and fluid in the lungs. These symptoms usually go away in a few weeks after exposure ends. Long-term, low-level exposure may result in fatigue, loss of appetite, headaches, irritability, poor memory and dizziness. Breathing very high levels of hydrogen sulfide can cause death within just a few breaths. There could be a loss of consciousness after one or more breaths. This high level of exposure would not be expected in a home, but could occur in a workplace.
How can I reduce my exposure to hydrogen sulfide gas?
Exposure to hydrogen sulfide gas can be reduced or prevented by ensuring that plumbing fixtures and pipes are installed and maintained properly. In homes where hydrogen sulfide gas is present, you can reduce the level of gas by locating and eliminating the source. Plumbers licensed by the Illinois Department of Public Health may be able to help with correcting problems associated with hydrogen sulfide gas.
If you live in a neighborhood impacted by industrial emissions of hydrogen sulfide, go inside and close doors and windows when odors are strong outside. When outdoor odors are high, you also may want to avoid outdoor activities such as jogging or yard work.
Workers who may be exposed to hydrogen sulfide gas should follow the guidelines established by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA has established confined space entry standards to prevent death from exposure to chemicals like hydrogen sulfide gas.
Where can I get more information?
Illinois Department of Public Health
Division of Environmental Health
525 W. Jefferson St.
Springfield, IL 62761
TTY (hearing impaired use only) 800-547-0466
U.S. Department of Labor
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
There are five regional OSHA offices in Illinois. Check your local telephone directory for the address and phone number of the office nearest you.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR)