Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.

Hydrogen Sulfide

Hydrogen sulfide is a colorless gas that has a strong rotten egg odor. It is produced naturally by the decaying process of organic matter and can also be released from crude petroleum, natural gas, and volcanic eruptions. Hydrogen sulfide is a very common gas that is generated in large farms and food processing plants, sewage treatment facilities, and landfills.

Since it is such a common compound found in large industrial operations, the health effects  of acute exposure to hydrogen sulfide are rather well defined. At high concentrations, at or above the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health’s (NIOSH) Reference Exposure Level (REL) of 10 parts per million, exposure to hydrogen sulfide may cause irritation to the eyes and respiratory system.  At higher concentrations, it can cause apnea, convulsions,  dizziness, weakness, insomnia, and even death.

However, long-term chronic effects of exposure to low levels of hydrogen sulfide are just now gaining some attention. A study published in 2015 looked at the effects of low-level exposure to hydrogen sulfide among Iranian workers from a natural gas processing plant and found elevated numbers of altered hemoglobin in the blood of those exposed. This can lead to a condition known as methemoglobinemia, which causes developmental delays and intellectual disabilities – symptoms that are even more detrimental in children. Other health effects have been documented, but the association to long-term exposure is less well defined. These include problems with the retina, respiratory problems, and neurological effects.

These findings become significant because a large number of industrial facilities in the US produce hydrogen sulfide around residential areas. Landfills are perhaps the locations where hydrogen sulfide emissions are most common. A group in Bristol VA that is working with CHEJ is suffering from constant hydrogen sulfide (among other chemicals) odors from a landfill that leave the community with headaches and other health problems. CHEJ continues to work with the community to close the landfill.

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