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A Short History of Hydrogen Sulfide

From the sewers of Paris to physiological messenger

Roger P. Smith

Early last year, reports began to emerge in the Southeastern United States of a strange illness. Homeowners reported nosebleeds, sinus irritation and respiratory problems that appeared to be associated with corrosion of copper pipes and air conditioner coils in their houses.

Corroded and non-corroded copper air-conditioner coilsClick to Enlarge ImageThe culprit seems to be drywall imported from China and possibly contaminated with strontium sulfide, an unstable salt that releases hydrogen sulfide on exposure to moisture. It was used widely in the housing boom of 2004–2007, and in the rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when domestic suppliers could not keep up with the demand. The Consumer Products Safety Commission is now investigating whether sulfide gases given off by the drywall, including hydrogen sulfide, are to blame. The Florida Department of Health maintains a Web site with information for consumers. Lawsuits abound, and many who are able to do so have moved out of their homes. Several estimates place the number of affected houses at 100,000.

To those experiencing or investigating this phenomenon early on, it seemed bizarre. But in fact, this is just the latest chapter in the history of a chemical whose effects were first noted in the 16th century. And there is still more to learn about its role in the human body. Recent research offers insights into its biochemical actions as well as some intriguing suggestions for medical uses.

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