There was a question this evening: "Is the sulfur from polishing silver with aluminum dangerous?"

The question has been removed by the author, so I'll try to summarize:

"I've polished silver by putting it in boiling water with aluminum and salt, it releases sulfur which smells bad, is this sulfur harmful?"

The question was deleted after someone pointed out that it might not be on-topic - maybe better asked on biology.

Any thoughts? Seems like a borderline question because there is definitely a redox reaction, but the question was more about the health effects.


3 Answers 3


Manishearth asked me to chime in, so here we go:

I think toxicology and pharmacology questions, in addition to reagent safety questions, are perfectly well suited for this site. Not to show disrespect to biologists, but I feel that many chemists here would probably be willing/able to cast much more light on the mechanisms of toxicity through chemical structure and reactivity, whereas I get the feeling that biology takes more of a large-scale systems approach to these explanations.

On the big Venn/Euler diagram of science, there's a tremendous amount of overlap between chemistry and biology (and chemistry and physics) so I guess my take is that if you ask a biochemistry question on a chemistry site, expect an answer in terms of atoms and bonds and conformers, whilst if you ask the same biochemistry question on the biology site, expect an answer in terms of metabolite concentrations and anatomy and even epidemiology. Both answers will have a different focus and both will be worthwhile.

To address the OP's question, the bad smell in question is almost certainly hydrogen sulfide (aka rotten egg gas), which actually has high acute toxicity, but which the nose is exquisitely sensitive to (section 1.2.1 gives a breakdown of detectability and toxicity thresholds). The fun* thing about hydrogen sulfide is that it actually anaesthetises the nose at high (i.e. toxic) concentrations so that you can no longer smell it.

*not actually fun.

  • $\begingroup$ +1 because you mentioned the main thing about site overlaps--the type of answer matters here. $\endgroup$ Commented May 4, 2012 at 12:29

General health effects of chemicals are a biological or medical topic, not a chemical one. They are off-topic here. They might be on-topic on Biology, but keep in mind that questions about personal medical advice are also off-topic there.

Questions about the biological mechanisms behind the toxicity of specific compounds is also a biological question, though there might be some aspects that are more on the chemistry side than the biology side, so there might be a few exceptions here.

There are questions related to health effects of specific chemicals that I would consider on-topic here. Everthing related to laboratory safety should be on-topic in my opinion, and that might include health effects of certain chemicals.


Health effects go to bio.SE. Health effects are chemistry in the end, but most of us here won't know much. Biologists know which chemical can affect what and why.

Unless it is a well known health effect(which then ought to be closed/downvoted as Googleable/no research effort), one can't expect a chemist to know. Finding health effects involve analysing all the possible enzymes/etc that the compount may react with. Depending upon the question, this may be too much work for the people at bio.SE as well (I doubt that any one person knows the behaviour of all the enzymes), and could be closed as "too broad" or something. Don't know about that. But it's definitely off-topic here.

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    $\begingroup$ I think you need to double check that one. $\endgroup$ Commented May 1, 2012 at 6:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Rich whoa, where did I learn that? Removed. Are the downvotes because of the wrong example or because nobody agrees? $\endgroup$ Commented May 2, 2012 at 14:56
  • $\begingroup$ I don't know - there were no downvotes when I wrote the comment and I certainly didn't downvote. Regarding As toxicity, the waters have probably been muddied somewhat by that arsenate-using bacterium (which everyone seems to love calling 'arsenic-based life', a bit of a stretch). I think the putative presence of arsenate in the DNA backbone is first and foremost a testament to the bacterium's faculties at not dropping dead from metabolic poisoning. Though I would imagine that my naive polymerases wouldn't be too happy if arsenate did turn up in my DNA... $\endgroup$ Commented May 2, 2012 at 15:33
  • $\begingroup$ @Rich ok, no prob. Just wanted to know which view was preferred by the community since this is pretty iffy.. Regarding the DNA, I shall read up on that, certainly :-) $\endgroup$ Commented May 2, 2012 at 15:36
  • $\begingroup$ To address your suggestion, I don't think that health effects should automatically go to Bio.SE as I feel that many chemists would probably be able to address a wide range of toxicology/pharmacology questions, perhaps even with a degree of structural/mechanistic detail that biologists would potentially subsume into 'oh it's an aconitase antagonist'. $\endgroup$ Commented May 2, 2012 at 15:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Rich hmm, I'm not a chemist so I wouldn't know. Care to post your own views on this question as an answer? :) $\endgroup$ Commented May 2, 2012 at 15:40
  • $\begingroup$ Sure, I'll muster my thoughts in the morning. $\endgroup$ Commented May 2, 2012 at 15:49

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