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University of Nebraska–Lincoln

UNL Extension in Lancaster County

Natural Resources

THE WATERWHEEL: A series dedicated to one of our most treasured resources - Water

THE WATERWHEEL - Drinking Water: Hydrogen Sulfide

by Don Janssen, UNL Extension Educator

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Water WheelHydrogen sulfide is a nuisance form of sulfur found in drinking water. Sulfur reducing bacteria, which use naturally occurring sulfur as an energy source, are the primary producers of hydrogen sulfide. These bacteria live in oxygen-deficient environments such as deep wells, plumbing systems, water softeners and water heaters. They usually flourish on the hot water side of a water distribution system. Hydrogen sulfide also occurs naturally in some groundwater.

Hydrogen sulfide produces an offensive "rotten egg" or "sulfur water" odor and taste. In some cases, the odor may be noticeable only when water is initially turned on or when hot water is run.

A nuisance associated with hydrogen sulfide includes its corrosiveness to metals such as iron, steel, copper and brass. It can also tarnish silverware. Coffee, tea and other beverages made with water containing hydrogen sulfide may be discolored and the appearance and taste of cooked foods can be affected.

The offensive odor of hydrogen sulfide usually makes testing unnecessary. Hydrogen sulfide gas is one of a few water contaminants detected at low concentrations by human senses.

Hydrogen sulfide is not regulated by the EPA since a concentration high enough to be a health hazard makes water unpalatable.

If excessive hydrogen sulfide is present in your water supply, you have two basic options, obtain an alternative water supply or use some type of treatment to remove the impurity. Hydrogen sulfide formation may be reduced in some instances by performing a shock chlorination. This procedure will reduce, but not eliminate, sulfide producing bacteria. Low levels of hydrogen sulfide may be removed with an activated carbon filter.

Hydrogen sulfide concentrations up to about six parts per million can be removed using an oxidizing filter and concentrations exceeding six parts per million can be removed by injecting an oxidizing chemical and using a filter.

This article appeared in the NEBLINE Newsletter.


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PHOTO Credit: Rita Shelley

Contact Information

University of Nebraska-Lincoln in Lancaster County
Web site: lancaster.unl.edu
444 Cherrycreek Road, Suite A, Lincoln, NE 68528 | 402-441-7180



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