Hydrogen sulfide fatality prompts education efforts

Several Factors Combine to Create Hazard

Ray Mueller

KIMBERLY – The death of Amherst area farmer and livestock producer Michael Biadasz early on an August morning in 2016 due to exposure to hydrogen sulfide from a manure pit has prompted a new round of attention from Wisconsin agricultural safety specialists.

How farmers handle manure is a big concern throughout the dairy state.

One example of that was a dual presentation on the topic at the semi-annual farm management update for agribusiness professionals sponsored by the Extension Service offices in east central counties. The presenters were University of Wisconsin biological systems engineer and safety expert John Shutske and Brown County agriculture educator Liz Binversie.
What was different about last year's incident, in which 16 Holstein steers also perished, was that it occurred in an outdoor setting, for which concerns have also arisen in Pennsylvania, Shutske pointed out. He noted that all previous incidents, including multiple deaths in Wisconsin and Minnesota dating to 1989 and 1992, had taken place in confined spaces.

Hydrogen sulfide basics

Along with carbon dioxide, ammonia, and methane, hydrogen sulfide (a combination of hydrogen and sulfur) is a byproduct of the fermentation process that enables cattle to produce milk and make meat, Binversie explained.
As a graduate student, Binversie conducted a research project on the toxicity of hydrogen sulfide in cattle. A scientific term which applies is polioencephalomalacia (PEM), which is a form of polio that can be identified by the sponging of the brain's gray matter and damage to the animal's lungs, she noted.
In cattle feeds, sulfur has a value in providing certain proteins and maintaining healthy rumen microbes, Binversie stated. But it should be limited to .4 percent of the dry matter of the diet for dairy and beef cattle and to .3 percent if that diet has a high portion of grains, she advised. 

Aerica Bjurstrom

Corn a contributor

Corn and its byproducts are the major contributor to the bacterial and fermentation processes that result in the production of hydrogen sulfide, Binversie indicated. This includes distillers grains, distillers syrup (fed to the Biadasz steers), corn gluten meal and feed, and corn germ meal, she said.
Dried distillers grains can lead to the PEM symptoms because of the concentration of protein and fiber and an increase of sulfur content, Binversie observed. She also noted that sulfur is used in the processing of corn to produce ethanol and in other processes that create the corn byproducts.
Other possible contributors to the development of high levels of hydrogen sulfide are water with a high sulfur content, gypsum products that are used for bedding, and leachate from storage units of forages, Binversie added. She suggested that manure from beef cattle is the most likely to produce and emit hydrogen sulfide because of the higher portion of corn and its byproducts in the diet.

Special site conditions

In examining the circumstances which existed at the Biadasz farm leading to the fatal incident, Shutske cited a previous stretch of several days with higher than average temperatures. On the fatal early morning, there was nearly 100 percent humidity, and no wind along with an atmospheric inversion (a weather phenomenon) which kept the emerging gases close to the ground, he noted. He also mentioned the heavy feeding of distillers syrup (18 to 20 pounds daily per steer).
Biadasz was also alone at the time, which is another risky practice in such a set of conditions because of how rapidly a person can be overcome, Shutske stressed. Hydrogen sulfide, which is characterized by its rotten egg smell, causes physical irritations at concentrations of 15 to 20 parts per million (ppm), wipes out one's sense of smell at above 150 ppm by paralyzing the olfactory nerve, attacks the nervous system and affects the ability to breathe at 500 plus ppm, and causes anyone who inhales to pass out and probably die after three or four breaths, he indicated.

John Shutske

Precautionary practices

Because of the severity of the potential or actual hazard, the first persons approaching such a situation and those responding to an emergency need to take precautions, Shutske warned.

They come in using the equipment that monitors the level of the four gases that might be in the air at the site and in wearing a self-contained breathing apparatus (cost of about $1,500) – nothing else – when approaching the site, he emphasized. “Respirators are no help.”
Monitors for the particular gases cost $150 to $250 each and last for one to two years while those that can monitor all four gases at once cost about $2,000, Shutske noted. He recommends that commercial manure applicators equip their employees with those devices and train them properly on their use, which includes having the monitors attached as close as possible to one's breathable space rather than in a back pocket.
When entering a confined space where manure is stored or a grain bin or tower silo, always have at least one more person involved, wear a harness, and identify an escape route, Shutske advised. He warned that the intensity of a gas can change greatly within a small distance.
The rules of safety apply to everyone, including emergency responders, Shutske remarked. He called for awareness and training for all the parties involved and for purchasing the gas monitors from a supplier that will provide training rather than buying them on the Internet.
As a result of the incident in August of 2016, the Biadasz family has established a farm safety and education fund with a goal of preventing any similar incidents.