A Short History of Hydrogen Sulfide: From the sewers of Paris to physiological messenger

Roger P. Smith in American Scientist:

ScreenHunter_04 Jan. 30 11.39 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.

The 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.

In 1713, a remarkable Italian physician named Bernardino Ramazzini published De Morbis Artificum, or Diseases of Workers. In Chapter 14, titled “Diseases of Cleaners of Privies and Cesspits,” he describes a painful inflammation of the eyes which was common among such workers. The inflammation often led to secondary bacterial invasion, and sometimes to total blindness. Displaying amazing insight, Ramazzini hypothesized that when the cleaners disturbed the excrement in the course of their work, an unknown volatile acid was produced, which was irritating to the eyes. It was also at least partially responsible for the odor of excrement, and it is now known to be generated wherever organic matter undergoes putrefaction.

Ramazzini further postulated that that same acid was causing copper and silver coins which the workers had in their pockets to turn black on their surfaces—an eerie resonance with the phenomena recently observed by U.S. homeowners.

More here.