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What Is Sulfur?

Sulfur is a chemical element with the symbol “S” and an atomic number of 16. It is considered to be a non-metal. It has a number of different ions, resulting in Sulfites (which are used in food processing) and sulfates (which are used in manufacturing). Sulfur can also be found in living organisms and is even digested by bacteria.

Sulfur is sometimes spelled “sulphur” especially in British English—and there has been some debate on which spelling is correct. Actually, both are, though if one looks at the history of the word, the Latin roots use the letter “f.” Chemists from around the world, though, tend to use “sulfur” if only to arrive at an international standard.

Many people associate sulfur with a rather strong and horrible scent, akin to rotting egg. In fact, some writers have described hell as steeped in suffocating sulfur fumes. It would surprise them to know that pure sulfur has no scent. The repulsive odor actually comes from the sulfur compound, hydrogen sulfide. That is actually quite dangerous and it is quite “good” that one whiff is enough to send people running in the opposite direction—it can damage the body, if inhaled in large amounts.

Sulfur is quite reactive and has been used in making gunpowder and insectides. It is also used for industrial processes like the manufacturing of rubber. Pharmaceutical companies also use small amounts to make some prescription drugs.

Sulfur can be found naturally in some mineral springs, and in general, it can be handled with little risk. However, sulfur compounds are volatile and even toxic. Companies that use sulfur dioxide, for example, must follow safety regulations and precautions.

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