Voices from the Field: Hydrogen Sulfide in Detroit

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Mark Jason

Mark Johnson is ATSDR’s Region 5 director in Chicago, Illinois. Read about how he helped stop harmful hydrogen sulfide exposures in Detroit, Michigan.

Air Samples Catch Harmful Levels of Hydrogen Sulfide at the Detroit Water Treatment Plant

Hydrogen sulfide is a flammable, colorless gas that smells like rotten eggs. Exposure to hydrogen sulfide is a potential health concern, even for short periods. In 2012, the EPA-Region 5 Air Enforcement program notified ATSDR that air samples near the Detroit Wastewater Treatment Plant showed readings as high as 12,000 parts per billion (ppb). Since the Acute Minimal Risk Level for hydrogen sulfide was 70 ppb, Johnson knew something had to be done.

Mark Johnson leads an ATSDR regional office that provides support and assistance on hazardous waste sites in six states—Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

Johnson has a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with a joint degree in Oncology and Environmental Toxicology. He also completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia University.

And there was no time to waste. Pedestrians and workers in the area could be exposed to the toxic gas. Additional air sampling by EPA showed the hydrogen sulfide gas was seeping through a large vent pipe.

After reviewing the data, Johnson told EPA officials that those high-concentration levels posed an urgent public health hazard. He recommended that immediate action be taken to stop the leaking hydrogen sulfide gas.

Johnson’s Work Leads to Administrative Order

Citing ATSDR’s recommendation, EPA officials issued an administrative order to the City of Detroit to address the problem. The city took action to prevent overflow of the sulfide groundwater and control the release of hydrogen sulfide into the ambient air. Follow-up air quality monitoring has shown shows that levels of hydrogen sulfide gas have been significantly reduced and no longer pose a health threat.

Because of the relationships that Johnson fosters with EPA and state and local health and environmental organizations, ATSDR is able to help protect people from exposures to harmful chemicals.

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Page last reviewed: July 9, 2015
Page last updated: July 9, 2015