What is Hydrogen Sulfide Gas?
Hydrogen sulfide is a colorless but highly toxic gas that has a distinctive rotten-egg odor, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The compound is a natural byproduct of decaying organic matter released from sewage sludge, liquid manure, sulfur hot springs, and natural petroleum. The substance is used in a number of different industries, and is released by processes such as mining, oil refining, and rayon manufacturing.
Hydrogen Sulfide Side Effects
Even in small amounts, hydrogen sulfide has an unmistakeable rotten-egg smell. However, with toxic exposure in high concentrations, the gas may deaden a person’s sense of smell. If the characteristic odor is no longer detectable, it does not necessarily mean that you are no longer in the presence of the gas. At low levels in low lying areas, signs and symptoms of hydrogen sulfide poisoning may include:
- Irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat
- Difficulty breathing
Toxic exposure at higher levels may lead to:
Treatment & Complications
Specific tests to detect hydrogen sulfide in the blood and urine are generally ineffective and not particularly useful to the doctor. If a person has been exposed to high levels of the gas, blood and urine analysis may be able to show whether the brain, nerves, heart or kidneys have been damaged. If the gas was inhaled, blood tests and a chest x-ray may be used to tell if the lungs have been injured. Testing is not required in every case of hydrogen sulfide worker exposure.
Unfortunately, there is currently no known antidote for this type of poisoning. However, side effects can be treated symptomatically, and most people exposed eventually make a full recovery.
Individuals exposed to high levels of the gas may require emergency hospitalization. A single hydrogen sulfide exposure from which a patient recovers quickly is not likely to cause long-term complications, but a serious exposure that induces a coma or convulsions may permanently damage the brain and heart.
How to Protect Workers Against the Dangers of Hydrogen Sulfide Exposure
There are several ways you can protect against the rotten eggs exposure to hydrogen sulfide:
Engineering controls such as ventilation systems can remove gas from confined spaces. Since the gas is highly flammable, the ventilation system must be explosive-proof.
Administrative controls can come in the form of company rules for entering, exiting and working in spaces where hydrogen sulfide gas is present. Safety training and gas level testing are also effective administration controls.
Personal Protective Equipment
Personal protective equipment (PPE) for hydrogen sulfide includes full-face air purifying respirators (APR) for gas amounts up to 100 ppm, and self-contained breathing apparatuses (SCBA) or supplied air lines for gas amounts reaching 100 ppm or higher. If direct skin contact with hydrogen sulfide is possible, workers must wear protective gloves and clothing made from material that cannot be permeated or degraded by the substance.
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