Do It Yourself: Detecting Hydrogen Sulfide In the Home

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Hydrogen sulfide is a hazardous gas with a distinct rotten-egg smell. It is found in fossil fuels, swamps, sewers and, more recently, in homes with drywall that has been degraded by moisture and humidity. The problem has especially hit property owners whose homes were built or remodeled between 2004 and 2007, when the U.S. construction industry imported large quantities of Chinese drywall. Although an odor is not always obvious, a simple walk-through inspection of a home combined with a review of the recent health histories of its inhabitants can determine whether additional, professional testing is necessary.

  • Check the coils of air conditioning units. Blackened or corroded copper coils on air conditioners are one of the most common telltale signs that hydrogen sulfide is present in a home. Air conditioners are affected particularly in the southeast United States, where many houses with hurricane damage were rebuilt between 2004 and 2007, and where warm and humid climates tend to trigger the release of hydrogen sulfide from drywall. The same type of black, powdery corrosion may also be found on refrigerator and oven coils, and on copper pipes used in household plumbing.

  • Examine the electrical wiring throughout the home. Like copper pipes, copper ground wires may also turn black and show signs of corrosion. Homeowners who have discovered hydrogen sulfide also report unusually high numbers of problems with other home electronics, such as televisions and computers.

  • Look for a manufacturer's name stamped on any exposed drywall in an attic or basement. Knauf Tiajin is one type of Chinese drywall linked in government investigations with home outbreaks of hydrogen sulfide. Other types, however, including some stamped "Made in USA," are tainted and will release the gas as moisture and humidity affect the drywall.

  • Talk with everyone in the home about recent health problems. Continual exposure to low levels of hydrogen sulfide commonly causes breathing troubles and sore throats. Many people also report headaches, eye irritations and bouts of nausea. Because hydrogen sulfide is heavier than air, it collects in basements, but also in rooms on lower levels. Small children and household pets may be especially vulnerable.

  • Check basement sewer drains and vents installed as part of a home plumbing system. Although drywall is often the cause of hydrogen sulfide in the home, backup from sewer pipes and debris caught in sewer drains can also cause the gas to collect. Flushing a drain or pipe may correct the problem, but a professional plumber may be able to help with additional steps to prevent future problems.

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