Sulfur & Groundwater


Gazette’s Introductory Note: The piece below is adapted from an information sheet provided by the non-profit Water Systems Council.  It addresses one of the more confusing topics in water treatment, the “sulfur” or rotten egg smell in well water. Bad smelling water is variously attributed to sulfur, sulfate, or hydrogen sulfide. This document seeks to shed some light on the origin and treatment of bad smelling water. 


What is Sulfur?

Two forms of sulfur are commonly found in drinking water: hydrogen sulfide and sulfate-reducing bacteria. Both forms are nuisances that usually do not pose a health risk at the concentrations found in domestic wells.

Hydrogen sulfide gas occurs naturally in some ground water that contains decaying organic matter, such as wetlands, marshes, swamps, river beds. It may be found in deep or shallow wells. Hydrogen sulfide is often present in wells drilled in shale or sandstone, or near coal or peat deposits or oil fields.

Sulfate is a combination of sulfur and oxygen, and is part of naturally occurring minerals in some soil and rock. The mineral dissolves over time and is released into ground water. Sulfur odor is produced when a non-harmful sulfur-reducing bacteria digests a small amount of the sulfate mineral.


What are the health effects of Sulfur?


The EPA considers sulfur a secondary water contaminant, with no direct threat to human health. Sulfate gives water a bitter taste and can have a laxative effect that may lead to dehydration. Hydrogen sulfide gives water a “rotten egg” odor and taste, and can cause nausea.


Hydrogen sulfide is corrosive to metals such as iron, steel, copper and brass. It can tarnish silverware and discolor copper and brass utensils. Hydrogen sulfide can also cause yellow or black stains on kitchen and bathroom fixtures. 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. High concentrations of dissolved hydrogen sulfide also can foul the resin bed of an ion exchange water softener.


How do I test for Sulfur?


Testing for hydrogen sulfide can be difficult because the gas escapes into the atmosphere so quickly. Onsite testing is the most accurate method for determining hydrogen sulfide concentration, especially if the odor is excessive. Hydrogen sulfide concentrations greater than 5 mg/L are more difficult to treat and could require special testing methods to assure accuracy.


Sulfate-reducing bacteria is rarely tested, however testing for sulfate ion (mineral) concentration is. The premise is: if a rotten egg odor is present and the sulfate ion concentration is excessive – greater than 150 mg/L – the odor is created by sulfate-reducing bacteria.


The EPA sets standards for secondary water contaminants based on taste, odor, color, corrosiveness, foaming and staining properties. Hydrogen sulfide is not regulated because any concentration high enough to pose a health hazard will also make the water too unpalatable to drink. The EPA’s secondary limit for sulfate in drinking water is 250 parts per million (ppm).


What are the treatments for Sulfur in drinking water?


Treatment options depend on the form (whether hydrogen sulfide or sulfate-reducing bacteria) and quantities of the “rotten egg odor-producing” contaminants. Hydrogen sulfide treatment is with chlorination or aeration followed by filtration. Often, treatment for hydrogen sulfide is the same as for iron and manganese, allowing the removal of all three contaminants in one process.


Most water heater anode rods contain some sulfate so, in the presence of sulfate-reducing bacteria, a rotten egg odor is created in the hot water only. If this occurs, the first course of action is to replace the anode rod with an aluminum-based rod which limits the sulfate and therefore stops the odor.


Sulfate-reducing bacteria is treated with continuous chlorination. Removing sulfate mineral is difficult and usually not feasible, so chlorination kills the bacteria instead. The chlorination process involves a chemical feed pump system that injects a chlorine solution into the inlet of a retention tank that must be installed in the house piping. The retention tank must hold enough water to provide a 20-minute time period for the chlorine to react with the bacteria. The capacity needed for the retention tank can be calculated by multiplying the well pump output times 20. A continuous chlorine residual of 1.0 mg/L is required at the outlet of the retention tank to assure the bacteria were destroyed. Since chlorine can be combined with natural organic matter, it’s always recommended that an activated carbon filter be installed after the retention tank to remove the chlorine.


Pure Water Gazette Fair Use Statement