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It seems like there’s no escaping the noisome fumes wafting from the Central Landfill in Johnston.
Rhode Islanders near and far have complained that the rotten-egg odor generated by decomposing organic waste is worse than ever. The concentration of hydrogen sulfide, the gas that causes the smell, has been classified by the state Department of Health at the "nuisance" level. And the gas certainly is a nuisance. But is it also a threat to public health?
At a recent public forum at Johnston High School, state Rep. Michael W. Chippendale claimed that it is. A very serious one, at that. After outlining the various health consequences that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists for exposure to hydrogen sulfide -- ranging from eye irritation at low levels to convulsions and death at high levels -- the Foster Republican made a claim at the Dec. 16 meeting that was hard to ignore.
"Hydrogen sulfide is, from just a brief search of the CDC’s website, one of the nastiest components, or chemical components, of some of the nastiest things that we’ve ever encountered in the world, including -- and I don’t want to sound overly dramatic if I haven’t already -- but including the actual chemicals used in the genocide of Jews in Germany," said Chippendale, a member of a legislative commission appointed to look into the stink from the landfill.
No doubt it’s a dramatic statement. Any reference to the Holocaust is bound to be. But is it true?
We called Chippendale, who guessed correctly why we wanted to talk to him. He was also quick to say that he thought he misspoke.
"It appears that I may have read things out of order," he said.
Chippendale said he prepared some notes before the forum that included comments on the health effects of hydrogen sulfide exposure and the statement related to Nazi gas chambers. But there was supposed to be a transition between the two topics, explaining that the toxicity of hydrogen sulfide is similar to the toxicity of another gas, hydrogen cyanide.
Chippendale said that when he spoke at the meeting, he mixed up his notes, so it wasn’t until after he mentioned the Holocaust that he drew the comparison between the toxicity of hydrogen sulfide and that of hydrogen cyanide.
And that’s where the problem arose. According to the CDC web page Chippendale used as a source, "hydrogen cyanide, under the name Zyklon B, was used as a genocidal agent by the Germans in World War II." Again, that’s hydrogen cyanide, not hydrogen sulfide. Hydrogen sulfide has been found at the landfill; hydrogen cyanide has not.
We decided to do more research on hydrogen sulfide and its history. Was it ever used by the Germans in World War II or as a chemical weapon by anyone else? And is its toxicity really comparable to hydrogen cyanide?
Our first stop was the CDC website that Chippendale went to. In all the documents on hydrogen sulfide on the site, we found no reference to the Germans using the gas in World War II.
We then contacted Stephen L. Morgan, a chemistry professor at the University of South Carolina who has taught courses on the history of chemical warfare. His reaction to Chippendale’s statement at the forum?
"I think he’s confused," he said.
Morgan found two references to hydrogen sulfide’s use as a chemical weapon in World War I, but not in World War II.
But that doesn’t mean that the gas can’t be dangerous under certain conditions.
According to the CDC, hydrogen sulfide "naturally occurs in the gases from volcanoes, sulfur springs, undersea vents, swamps and stagnant bodies of water and in crude petroleum and natural gas." It also results from the decomposition of organic matter and can be found at wastewater treatment plants, landfills, slaughterhouses, petroleum refineries and other industrial facilities.
When levels are high enough, it can cause illness and, in some instances, death. According to the Rhode Island Department of Health, levels higher than 10 parts per million are unhealthy. Levels higher than 100 parts per million can trigger evacuation. The "Handbook of Environmental Data on Organic Chemicals" by Karel Verschueren says immediate death results from a level higher than 800 parts per million.
The CDC lists a number of incidents in which people have died from exposure to high levels of hydrogen sulfide. In fact, in 2001, a fisherman died on a Rhode Island boat and two others were injured after breathing in hydrogen sulfide inside the vessel’s hold.
The gas concentrations measured during visits to neighborhoods near the Central Landfill and at a fixed monitoring station at Wood Lake Park in Johnston have so far been far less than 1 part per million, according to Barbara Morin, supervising environmental scientist at the state Department of Environmental Management.
"It’s not at a level that’s going to poison anybody," she said.
There’s no question that in confined conditions and at extremely high concentrations hydrogen sulfide can be dangerous. There are recorded instances of people dying from exposure to the gas. But we could find no record of the Germans using it in their gas chambers during World War II.
Rep. Chippendale made a statement that was sure to draw attention.
"My sole intent was to make the point and drive it home with as strong a use of terms as I possibly could while remaining factually accurate," he told us.
But he wasn’t accurate. Give him credit for admitting that without much fuss. Nevertheless, we should all be more careful when trying to make a connection to something as emotionally charged as the Holocaust. We rule the statement False.
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ATSDR.CDC.gov, "Hydrogen sulfide," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, updated March 3, 2011, accessed Dec. 19, 2011
ATSDR.CDC.gov, "Toxicological profile for hydrogen sulfide," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, July 2006, accessed, Dec. 19, 2011
BT.CDC.gov, "Cyanide," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, updated Jan. 27, 2004, accessed Dec. 19, 2011
Books.google.com, "Chemical and Biological Warfare," 2002, page 109
Interview and e-mails, Michael W. Chippendale, state representative, Dec. 19, 2011
Interview and e-mails, Stephen L. Morgan, professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of South Carolina, Dec. 19, 2011
Interview, Barbara Morin, supervising environmental scientist, Rhode Island Department of
Environmental Management, Dec. 20, 2011
E-mails, Dr. Robert Vanderslice, chief, Office of Environmental Health Risk Assessment, Rhode Island Department of Health, Dec. 20, 2011
E-mails, Annemarie Beardsworth, spokeswoman, Rhode Island Department of Health, Dec. 20, 2011
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