Hydrogen sulfide
Sulphur
16th August 2023
by Andrew Kettler
Created at:
16th August 2023
Creator:
Andrew Kettler
Citation:
[click to copy]
Hydrogen sulfide
Smells

Sulphur is a common element in the natural world, which frequently mixes to create numerous compounds that, at times, can become threatening to human health. The smell of sulphur has been contested as a cultural signifier for nearly all human history, mostly due to the common place of sulphur in much of daily life in diverse global regions. Specific egg smells that are linked to sulphur are often caused by gaseous hydrogen sulphides, but also can emanate above ground from numerous other sulphates, sulphides, and sulfuric compounds. 

Sulphur has, for centuries, been linked with beliefs about the underworld and concepts of perdition related to the afterlife because of this supposedly rotting smell. Associations with sulphur and its smell have changed significantly over time in the West, whereby sulphur was consistently focused on religious perceptions prior to modernity, although with many other lesser connotations, and then shifted with modernity whereby most modern references are industrial, although previous connotations remain in certain cases.

Odeuropa Smell Explorer
Smells

The smell of sulphur has been associated with volcanic activity for much of human history. The Greeks believed that Hephaestus, the god of fire and volcanoes, lived underneath Mount Etna in Sicily. As well, the Romans believed that Vulcan, their god of fire, existed underneath Vesuvius. Many associations between volcanic activity and mythical life also exist in diverse global cultures beyond those in Europe (Kroonenberg and Brown 2012). 

The smell of sulphur is often present during volcanic eruptions, in those cases caused by the release of sulphur dioxide and other gaseous compounds. The association of sulphur with volcanic activity also led to the common connections between smell and sulphur springs. This traditional linking has continued until today, whereby sulphur springs the world over are often considered to smell of rotten eggs and by many are considered healthful, in part, due to those pungent smells and other sensory signifiers. Sulphur is often associated with ideas of hell because of this strong smell, underworld associations of volcanoes, and the strange and often blueish colour of its flames (Kutney 2013; Meyer 1977).

In Christian mythology, sulphur has often been considered the material of hell's fire. This connection has been made since the ancient world, leading to sulphur being linked to the idea of hellishness in literature and culture throughout later Europe. In the Bible, sulphur was associated with fire and brimstone, which were used as punishments for sinners in the afterlife or in the lake of fire commonly referenced in the Old Testament. Sulphur was also the elemental power believed to have destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for the supposed sins of those ancient cities. In the 1570s theologian William Hunnis summarized this “great rayne of fyre…Sulpher strong” when discussing the lasting implications of sin for English populations (1584: 41-42).

The phrase "fire and brimstone" is still used today to describe a fiery, hellish punishment and the associated tortures upon the senses. This malevolent miasma was often referenced within the vision literature of the Middle Ages and later Early Modern Era. Specifically, the Monk of Evesham, from near the town of Worcestershire in the West Midlands, wrote near the end of the twelfth century of encountering a wayward priest who found himself trapped in purgatory, often within “stinking baths of brimstone and pitch.” Deeper in hell, the Monk witnessed many souls that were “roasted at the fire; some were fried in a pan; some were pierced with fiery nails even to their bones and to the loosening of their joints; some were soaked in baths of pitch and brimstone with a horrible stench, and others in molten lead and brass and other metals” (Paget 1909: 101, 152, 173). The associations between sulphur and the underworld continue today, although in much more secular, industrial, and geologic terms than centrally with the religious formulations of centuries prior.

Places

Sulphur has been commonly smelled within diverse spaces throughout history, including commonly due to pest control, sulfur baths near volcanic areas, and due to the use of sulphur in warfare. Pliny the Elder was among the first for Europeans to explore the commonalities of sulphur smell in volcanic regions, near religious ceremonies, and around lightning strikes in the ancient world (1855: 291-293). During more modern times, Mark Twain also discussed the sulphur of volcanic spaces in the Mediterranean in Innocents Abroad (1869), noting of Vesuvius that “gusts of sulphurous steam issued silently and invisibly from a thousand little cracks and fissures in the crater” (324). 

Across the centuries, sulphur was linked to nearly all volcanic regions of the earth, often tied to sulphur baths and ideas of explosive potential of the underworld. Sulphur baths used since the beginning of human history grew greatly during the Victorian Era in the United Kingdom and United States due, in part, to the rise in geological investigations in minerals and their properties (Agnew 2019). Today, sulphur as part of the underworld is also commonly associated in more secular senses due to mining and industrial regions as well due to the prominence of sulfur in fossil fuel and fertilizer production.

William Bullock, The volcanic mountain of Popocatepetl. 17875 Feet in height, 1824, etching, aquatint, ink; height 10.7 cm, width 18.3 cm, London, John Murray, Albemarle-Street.

Sulphur was also commonly used for pest control in diverse historical spaces. These processes often included historical use of fumigation in ships, warehouses, and food storage facilities. Prior to chemistry, many societies used sulphur coated grains and sulphur powders to create spaces made to become unappealing to rats. The sulphur is meant to create an unpleasant odour and taste that rats find repulsive. The tradition of sulfuric pesticides transferred to the common use of sulphur gases used to suppress rats in modern cities of the early twentieth century (Engelmann and Lynteris, 2020).

Sulphur has also been common in spaces of warfare, dating at least to the Roman Era use of sulphur in pyrotechnic displays, and numerous historical persons have offered their interpretations of sulphur’s smells at battle sites. During the eighteenth century, sulphur was frequently used in the production of gunpowder, as it had been in lesser quantities since the invention of the tripartite gunpowder recipe of saltpetre, sulphur, and charcoal. This recipe played a crucial role in warfare since the 13th century, after Crusaders returned to Europe with knowledge of Chinese and Ottoman gunpowder and pyrotechnic recipes (Kelly 2009).

Many have noted the irony of a devilish ingredient being used for deathly weaponry, sometime with attribution to a supposedly demonic friar named Bartold Schwarz for many inquisitive Europeans of the Early Modern Era (Harris 2009). For instance, the English deacon and religious chronicler Edward Kellett noted ironically in The Threefold Supper of Christ (1641) that European ammunitions using gunpowder included elements that English religious writers had sometimes defined as hellish. He questioned, “Who would have thought, that the River-water should be the chief ingredient to make Gunpowder?” Such “River-water” was the lava-laden liquid that exited hell from the River Styx as guarded by the god Charon, the ferryman to Hades. Kellett venerated the inventors of gunpowder, rather than judge them immoral for their use of hellish elements, offering that England’s “brackish fountains; our Baths; our Brimstony springs, or rivulets, may perhaps” provide content for English armouries (564-566).


John Russell Bartlett, Geysers, California, March 23, 1852, pencil, sepia and wash on beige paper; 11.5 x 15.9 inches. John Russell Bartlett Collection: JRB057


Sulphur became prominent in international relations during the nineteenth century due to these gunpowder associations and increasing industrial usage, which contributed to sulphuric wars, as with the Sulphur Crisis of 1840 between empires fighting over access to the element, as well as trying to create greater advantages in trade with Sicily, where the most common mines of Western Europe were during the era, and were mined by young boys nickname carusi for their sulphuric labour. Governments and entrepreneurs began investing in the exploration and development of new sulphur sources, leading to the discovery of new sulphur deposits in colonial spaces and the development of new extraction techniques in the later nineteenth century (Ferrara, 2015; Cunha, 2019). 

Industrial warfare of modernity has increased the prominence of sulfuric smell on battlefields. The use of chemical weapons in World War I created a distinct smell that soldiers often associated with sulphur. The sulphur-like smell of mustard gas from that Great War is still used today as a training aid to help soldiers recognize gas on battlefields, and such training created significant threat and toxic exposures to many soldiers and test subjects during World War II in the United States (Smith 2017).

Sulphur mines currently exist the world over, as sulphur is a naturally occurring element with numerous compounds. The largest mines are in the United States, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Canada. Some of the purest sulphur is mined in Indonesia. Sulphur is primarily mined in the East Java province of Indonesia and typically involves the extraction of sulphur rocks from the ground using traditional mining methods such as drilling, blasting, and excavation. The extracted sulphur materials are then transported to a processing plant where the sulphur is separated from impurities. Sulphur mining in Indonesia can be a hazardous and challenging industry due to the high temperatures, toxic gases, and other hazards associated with sulphur extraction. 

Historic American Engineering Record, Rocky Mountain Arsenal. Documentation compiled after 1968, Sulfur Monochloride & Dichloride Manufacturing, 1003 feet South of December Seventh Avenue; 412 feet East of D Street, Commerce City, Adams County, CO. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA, Control Number co0592.

Today, sulphur is widely available and used in a variety of industries, including agriculture, mining, and chemical manufacturing. More recently, people living near the tar sands in Canada have frequently reported smelling sulphur due to the presence of sulphur mounds. The sulphur mounds near the tar sands in Canada are a by-product of the oil extraction process. The tar sands in Canada contain large amounts of bitumen, a thick, sticky substance that is mixed with sand, clay, and water. To extract the bitumen, the tar sands are mined and then processed using a combination of heat, steam, and solvents. During this process, sulphur compounds in the bitumen are converted into elemental sulphur. The sulphur then is formed into yellow piles near the extraction site. The production of sulphur from the tar sands is a significant source of sulphur in North America and is an important industry for Canada. However, the sulphur mounds can also pose environmental challenges, including the release of sulphur dioxide gas into the atmosphere, which can contribute to air pollution and other environmental problems. In addition, the large piles of sulphur can be a visual blight on the landscape and can impact local ecosystems. There are also several sulphur mounds near Vancouver, which are a by-product of various industrial processes, including oil and gas refining, pulp and paper production, and metal smelting (Ceccotti 2012: 175-188; Aas 2019). 

These sulphur mounds can impact the environment in several ways. Sulphur dioxide contributes to acid rain, which can harm plants and aquatic life, and damage buildings and infrastructure. Since the discovery of acid rain and the processes that create it in the 1960s, sulphur has been understood much more as an environmental threat, in part due to the common rotting smell of large deposits of sulphur when mixed in the air (Rothschild 2019). 

Sulphuric compounds can be toxic to plants and animals in high concentrations, and the large piles of sulphur can disrupt natural habitats and alter the balance of local ecosystems. Efforts are being made to address the environmental impacts of sulphur mounds near Vancouver and other areas. For example, some industries are implementing more environmentally friendly processes to reduce the amount of sulphur produced. In addition, sulphur can be treated and used in various applications, including fertilizers, concrete production, and paper manufacturing, which can help reduce the amount of sulphur that needs to be stored in mounds. Measures have also been taken to cover the piles to prevent sulphur dust from being released into the air, or reclaiming the land around the mounds for other uses (Hazelton, 2016).

Practices

Sulphur, and its smells, have also been used in medical treatment, diagnosis, and procedures in nearly all eras and regions of human history. Sulphur has historically been believed to treat skin diseases such as acne, psoriasis, and eczema, partly due to beliefs concerning anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties that can help to soothe and heal the skin. As well, parasitic infections were commonly treated through sulphur, as with scabies, lice, and ringworm. Common in the Early Modern Era, sulphur was believed to also cure respiratory conditions such as asthma and bronchitis, as it was believed that sulphur could help to open the airways and improve breathing. Sulphur has also been thought to cure digestive disorders, apoplexy, and infectious diseases. Today, sulphur is still used in some medical treatments. For example, sulphonamides and sulpha antibiotics are sometimes used to treat bacterial infections. 

Despite smells that emanated from supposed sinners and medical treatments, sulphur was also a common perfume and fumigation ingredient throughout the Early Modern Era (Muchembled 2020). Into the age of sewage treatment in Paris of the nineteenth century, sulphur became even more important for airing out areas considered contagious and threatening to human health (Corbin 1986: 64-69; Barnes 2006: 141-159). 

For examples of earlier treatments, in ancient Greece, sulphur was used to disinfect wounds and treat skin diseases. These treatments passed frequently to more modern scholars. Pliny the Elder, Avicenna, and Paracelsus discussed the importance of sulphur in diverse medical treatments. Sulphur was also often used by physicians to treat venereal diseases in later Europe. The physician and translator Thomas Johnson’s collection of the works of Ambroise Paré recorded in 1665 that for curing the “Lues Venerea” some physicians prescribed “fumigations.” Many of the patients treated through these methods were “taken hold of by a convulsion, and a…trembling of their heads, hands, and legs, with a deafness, apoplexie, and lastly, miserable…death, by reason of the malign vapors of sulphur…drawn in by their mouth, nose, and all the rest of the bodie” (476-478).

Sulphur could be used as part of such a fumigation recipe to cure relatively innocuous diseases such as lethargy, for violent personal treatments of the body described by Johnson, and for more tenacious epidemics as the plague. Fumigation methods for the plague, used sometimes as far back as the ancient world, later included larger scale processes introduced by the English state, European navies, and private medicine to induce healthful populations; particularly for the extermination of miasmas that were believed to kill English cattle or for cleaning exceedingly infectious sailing vessels when many still questioned the purifying capabilities of water (Wecker and Read 1660: 26-27; Bradley 1732: 199-201; Wilkinson 1763: 122-123). 

During the Early Modern Era, sulphur has multifarious meanings within different discourses (Tullett 2019: 10-11; Friedman 2016: 99-118). Sulphur was used in the form of powders and ointments that were applied to the skin to help prevent the spread of the disease. For more examples of sulphur’s medical properties, in the Pharmacopoeia Londinensis, first published in 1618, numerous recipes for tinctures for curing diverse ailments include sulphur as a central ingredient (Culpepper 1653: 178-185). George Bate’s later Pharmacopoeia Bateana (1694) summarized many of these early modern English medical practices that included sulphur. The element could be used as part of a concoction to cure a common cough, as the means to ferment calf’s blood for curing numerous lung disorders, to remedy sores in the mouth and gums, to rectify numerous spirits for the creation of perfumes, and to treat “Continual and Continent Fevers” (95-107). Some of these treatments, as for those of the skin, often left the sulfuric smells on the body, which could sometimes reinforce links between religious smells and brimstone (Tullett 2019: 101).

Following from ancient tomes, these scholars and physicians that used sulphur, and many others who had understood sulphurs healing products in baths, sulphur products were consistently used to treat the plague during the Early Modern Era (Friedman 2016: 106-110). The treatment involved the use of sulphur compounds that were believed to have disinfectant properties. This fumigation ingredient of sulphur was specifically vital within Nathan Hodges inventions of resinous smoke for curing the effects of the intensely lethal London plague of 1665. Daniel Defoe described how the poor in Newgate Market created anti-plague fumigations for “airing and sweetening their houses.” The citizens therein “burnt perfumes, incense, Benjamin, resin, and Sulphur…and let the air carry it all out with a blast of gunpowder.” The plague, treated through Englishpersons’ cleansing explosions, would be destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666 that grew in part due to the washing powers of sulfuric smoke, which kept the fire moving through gunpowder stores met by the meandering flames as they slalomed through the city’s tortuous avenues (1869: 200).

The London fire, fed by these unintended encounters with arsenals, flooded nasal canals with sulphur while burning off the diseased vapours of early modern English streets. Similar sulfuric attempts to stem the plague had been used in Genoa in 1657 and were applied within southern France in 1721 and 1722, in those cases involving wood contraptions invented by the Capuchin Monk Maurice. Whether wood or metal, later machines of similar variety pumped sulphur compounds into graves to combat the spreading of plague from the recently buried dead (Engelmann and Lynteris, 2020: 23-54).

Feelings and Noses

Sulphur, as a common burning stone, offered humans throughout history emanations that suggested connotations of religious fear related to these narratives. Religious identity was partly formed by the understandings of these relationships between specific materials from the perceived environment. Due to the smouldering qualities of sulphur, the element and its compounds was also an important ingredient in alchemy during the Middle Ages and was believed to be a key element in the creation of the Philosopher's Stone, leading to smells sometimes being associated to alchemy. Its chemical properties and ability to mix with other substances made it an excellent catalyst for use in experiments, allowing alchemists to create unique chemical reactions that amazed observers regardless of their efficacy (Dugan 2011: 49; Newman 2010).

During the Early Modern Era, that ideal of hellishness that was tied to sulphur and brimstone linked more with the lived experience of religiously motivated historical persons, whereby sulphur sensed in the world through the nose often meant that demons, witches, or the devil was proximate to the miasmic encounter. In the prosecution of Lewis Gaufredy, a Catholic priest from Marseille in the late sixteenth century, evidence of demonic actions related to a supposed “great light, which stinks exceedingly” that came from supposedly malicious candles the priest allegedly used to turn his followers (Creede, 1612: 9-11). The associations were common, and often included ideas that heretics in general could often be smelled through sulfuric odours, partly due to this idea of forced fumigations of sulphur meant to create devilish followers, as within the 1603 edition of Samuel Harsnett’s Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (Dugan 2011: 103).

As in Lambert Daneau’s Dialogue of Witches (1575), devout Englishpersons of the sixteenth century often concluded that othered regions of the world also sensed of the devil. In the English translation of Daneau’s work, the reformed writer specifically endorsed that Persia and Italy were so poisoned by the evil of heretical religions and Catholicism that the “pestilent smell or vapour doth…infect an whole region through which it breatheth…and infectious diseases are thereby engendred” (32-35). As within English Bishop Thomas Watson’s later Beatitudes (1671), other spaces of the world that were deemed to be cursed with ancient evils smelled specifically of sulfuric malice. Therein, regions near the Dead Sea that may have been Sodom, “that was once the wonder of Gods patience, is now a standing Monument of Gods severity; all the plants and fruits are destroyed; and…that place still smells of fire and brimstone” (112-113).

Varied community references from the Middle Ages and during the Early Modern Era also tied atmospheric sulphur to the presence of the devil’s atmospheres in the lived world (Robinson 2019: 157-165; Woolgar 2011: 121, 180). Late sixteenth century Cambridge theologian Hugh Clark’s religious exertions in Northamptonshire involved scents created when the townspeople resisted his word to honour the Sabbath. In the night after their failure to rest, “there was a great noise and rattling of chains up and down the town which was accompanied by such a smell and stink of fire and brimstone, that many of their guilty consciences suggested…that the devil was come to fetch them away quick to hell” (Clarke, 1651: 388). 

The collected witchcraft cases Saducismus Triumphatus (1681) likewise summarized many of these instances of aromatic bewitching for English readers. A 1664 case in Somerset involved the haunting of Anne Bishop by a man dressed all in black, later rendered to be Satan, who, “After all was ended…vanished, leaving an ugly smell at parting.” Numerous other cases collected within this compendium involved the “sulpherous smell” left behind after various visitations from invasive, indoctrinated, and infesting demons (Glanvill: 93, 149, 157, 164, 166). Witchcraft cases and manuals for detecting witches peaked during the Reformation and before the Restoration in England, with many noting the sulfuric smells of witches and demons as evidence of malevolence and the nearness to preternatural traces of hell.

Geo. H. Walker & Co., The witch no. 1 / J.E. Baker, Boston ; N.Y., c1892 Feb. 29, 1 print : lithograph ; 28 3/8 x 41 1/2 in. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA, 2003677961.


Sulphur can create intensive feelings of disgust and fear. The bad smell of sulphur has been used in literature as a symbol of evil and corruption of the soul. Vision literature of the Medieval Era developed from many Christian scholars who would write of their sensory perceptions of perdition. As part of this tradition in the late fifteenth century, Dante portrayed the smell of hell akin to that of the privy: “From a steaming stench below, the banks were coated with a slimy mold that stuck to them like glue, disgusting to behold and worse to smell.” As Dante and Virgil investigated the depths, they perceived a “bottom …so hollowed out of sight” with “souls in the ditch plunged into excrement that might well have been flushed from our latrines.” When the fraternal itinerants were deeper in the circles of hell, the scents of the brimstone-covered sixth ring became vehemently abrasive to their senses, providing that “the disgusting overflow of stench that the deep abyss was vomiting forced us back.” The travelers, consequently pushed backwards, read a nearby inscription on the walls that summarized that anyone who traveled through must delay “somewhat so that our sense of smell may grow accustomed to these vile fumes” (1971: 168, 235-236).

As Kris Lane has also added concerning the notes of Diego de Ocaña, an alms collector in Potosi, Bolivia in 1601, local performance culture in the Spanish Empire frequently involved comedies that included a commonly known stinking character of the devil. Many cultures found humour in the associations of the devil and sulphur, including many plays that involved farting and faeces that also were associated to the devil. In the specific performances described by Ocaña, the devil character would agree to a joust by sending a letter from the “dark dungeons” and “infernal caverns” near the “Stygian lakes, burning with flames of sulfur” that stated: “The Prince of Tartary, who of sulfur/ Sustains himself in the dark cavern/ Will present himself at half past five,/ And he thanks those who shall suffer until then” (2019: 105-106).

Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1603) included sulfuric atmospheres within discussions of the legendary past of the Danish throne and metaphorical implications of contemporary political debates during the end of the Elizabethan Era. Throughout the play, Hamlet consistently uncovered the sulfuric smells as “blasts from hell” and the associated stink of a decaying an “unweeded garden” related to the politics of a tragic coup that were increasingly “rank and gross in nature.” When holding Yorick’s skull, the sombre Hamlet proposes that Denmark was faced with a fomenting rebellion to cure the “foul and pestilent congregation of vapors” that the heavens breathed upon him, and the odors that “hell itself breathes out/ Contagion to this world” (Liebler, 1995: 185-187).

Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606) also uses sulfuric squibs in the production to signal to the audience the presence of hell as well as the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 (Harris 2007). In John Milton’s "Paradise Lost" of 1667 sulphur was also used as a symbol of the rebellious and corrupting influence of Satan, who lived in a space of “ever-burning” sulphur (5). In the womb of Satan was “hard metallick Ore, The work of sulphur” (25). As well, the throne of Satan was partially made of “sulphur, and strange fire” (34). Moving away from the demonic associations of sulphur, the diarist and monarchist John Evelyn wrote of the Restoration Era capitol city due to the rise in coal smoke in Fumifugium (1661) as full of a “deleterious quality” that floated in “clouds of smoake and sulphur, so full of stink and darkness” (11).

These diverse connotations within writings about sulphur represent that multiple discourses existing for educating feelings about encountering sulphur. One discourse, involving the detections of sulfur as signifying supernatural evil, faded throughout the ecological encounters of the Early Modern Era. Another, mocking that ideal, grew under the pressures of a changing market, including beer kilns, sulfuric matches, and coal mines, that needed sulphur to be judged as something other than magically wicked; opening a space for previously negative odors to be shifted into a space of the acceptable at the base of the Industrial Revolution. 

As Stephen Mosley has noted of later industrializing eras of the nineteenth century: “unlike the foul odours associated with miasmas,” coal smoke “did not fill the Victorian city dweller with apprehension. Indeed, many people actively embraced the idea that this form of air pollution deodorized and disinfected the urban atmosphere” (2001: 84). That deconstructive shift, in part, allowed for sulphur’s smells to permeate life in more profound ways, leading to crisis concerning ecological threats from sulphur that include coal smoke in the lungs and blocking out of the sun, acid rain from the skies, and cancerous sulfuric compounds finding their way into drinking water and agricultural leakages from sulfuric fertilizers. 

Sulphur advanced within chemical experimentation during the eighteenth century, much in the West through the work of chemist Antoine Lavoisier. Lavoisier discovered that sulphur, like other elements, cannot be created or destroyed in chemical reactions, but can only be transformed from one form to another. He also determined that sulphur could combine with other elements to form compounds, and he conducted experiments to study the properties of these compounds. In addition, Lavoisier demonstrated that sulphur, when burned in air and offering odours, combines with oxygen to form sulphur dioxide gas, which he then studied in detail, laying foundations for modern chemistry (Lavoisier 2011 [1790]).

In more modern sensoriums, sulphuric beliefs related to religion have sometimes faded because of the industrial and scientific aspects of smelling sulfur. Sulphur became so common with industrialization, as a major part of gunpowder, always near coal, as essential in the processes that vulcanizes rubber, for the increasing belief in the healing powers of sulphuric bathing, and sensed consistently near all other fossil fuels, that much of the religious sentimentality concerning sulphur and hell faded (Kettler 2019). 

Sulphur vulcanization is a specific chemical process used to alter the properties of rubber. Invented by Charles Goodyear in 1844, vulcanization involves mixing sulphur with rubber before the rubber is formed into whatever shape or product it is intended to be. Vulcanizing rubber creates stronger, more durable products, and is used to manufacture tires and other rubber items (Slack 2002). Most of these industrial uses for sulphur, including vulcanization, were aided in the late nineteenth century due to the invention of the Frasch process in 1867, which uses superheated water to extract sulphur from underground deposits, increasing numbers of miners and laborers that faced sulfuric smells (Haynes 1959). Sulphur smells are often also added to some industrial processes for detection, whereby the human nose functions as threat detector, aided by the additional smells. These additional compounds can give natural gas a distinctive odour. The most common odorants used for these additions are mercaptans.

For modern environmental crises, during the combustion of coal sulphur is released into the atmosphere in the form of sulphur dioxide, a major contributor to acid rain. Reducing the sulphur content in coal is an important way to reduce its environmental impact and is part of the ideal of “clean coal” as a greenwashing aspect of modern energy interests. To reduce pollution, modern coal plants often use "scrubbers" that remove sulphuric particles and compounds from the smoke before it is released into the air. The main way sulphur is used in the modern world is through these industrial processes, as sulphuric acid is used for the create of sulphate and phosphate fertilizer recipes. The general smell of sulphur above some low-lying farming and wetland areas can often be attributed to many of these sulphates that enter the damp soil and then emanate as miasma due to processes that break down the sulphates in fertilized soil (Mudahar, 1986; Glass, 2016). More specific threats often arise from sulphur use in Canada due to the large mines and fossil fuel extraction in the nation, as with fish kills at places like Burrard Inlet, due to heavy water issues along the Great Lakes Shoreline, and in Hamilton Harbour (Wynne 2004; Parr 2014; Bouchier 2016).

Sulphur’s blue flames and egg smells had always been feared due to supernatural consequences of supposedly being near the underworld. Sulphur is the fifth most abundant element on earth and is generally considered to be essential for life. The general way humans encountered sulphur historically is within sulphate or sulphide forms as part of miasma, which often created odoriferous smells that were oftentimes linked with the demonic underworld. Those diabolic connotations shifted with modernity, although threats from sulphur have increased with modern industry, sulphuric linkages for phosphates within fertilizer recipes, and the current energy regimes of fossil fuels. Sulphuric compounds are generally found as a by-product of nearly all fossil fuel productions, as with petroleum and coal processes. 

Creator:
Andrew Kettler
Citation:
Andrew Kettler, “Sulphur,” Encyclopedia of Smell History and Heritage, accessed April 21, 2024, https://encyclopedia.odeuropa.eu/items/show/20.
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