November 21, 2018
It’s a bad idea from the pulpit, for sure, but can be even worse in the environment. Brimstone is the old Biblical name for sulfur (or sulphur in the British spelling) and when it’s burned, it forms sulfur dioxide, a smelly and hazardous gas. Sulfur dioxide reacts with water – in the open air, with the help of UV energy from the sun, it forms sulfuric acid, a strong and dangerous acid. So, you get acid rain from SO2 in the skies. In your lungs it also forms an acid and can lead to permanently damaged lungs, and interferes with the transport of oxygen in the blood.
Why are you getting this Chem 1A in a sailing blog? Well, because Licata was once, not that long ago, Europe’s major exporter of sulfur – which was mined from the mountainous backbone of Sicily. Sulfur and sulfur miners played an important part in the culture of Sicily for well over 200 years, and its effects are still felt today. Many of the large and elegant “palazzi” in and around Licata were built with the profits of the sulfur trade, and some of the prosperous families in the city are the result of inherited sulfur money.
We were fortunate, with our friends Morten, Anne-Inger and Howard, to be able to visit the wonderful museum in this small Sicilian town about 30 kilometers northwest of Licata. There we got an intimate (and very nicely guided) view of the terrible impact of resource extraction on a colonized people, and a once beautiful (now still recovering) environment.
Sulfur is the fifth most common element on earth, and is important for many biological processes. It reacts with just about everything, with only a few exceptions. It is essential to life as we know it, needed for the formation of many amino acids, biotin and thiamine, keratin for hair and skin, and perhaps most important, to allicin – the ingredient that makes garlic the loveliest of seasonings (IMHO). With the development of explosive weapons of war, and then the industrial revolution, sulfur became critical in other ways. Gunpowder (black powder) is roughly 10% sulfur. Sulfuric acid is critical to the production of metals, fertilizers and other large-scale industrial products.
Sicily has always had plenty of sulfur, relatively close to the surface, since volcanic activity can melt sulfur out of rock and concentrate it in and around volcanic vents. Do that for a billion years or two, and you have a lot of concentrated sulfur, mixed in rocky strata that have been folded and lifted by the constant motion of the earth’s crust.
For centuries sulfur was mined in Sicily for mainly medical and ceremonial uses, in small hand dug mines close to the surface. Sulfur candles were burned in wine barrels to combat the bacteria that can turn wine into vinegar, and later sulfur was used for fireworks and other innocent pleasures.
The villages in the sulfur-rich mountains were small agricultural enclaves, most with deeply Islamic traditions and heritage covered by a thin veil of initially forced “Christianization.” They were very poor towns whose surplus production had been appropriated for centuries by a series of usually far from benign colonial powers.
But at the beginning of the 19th Century, sulfur demand took off. At that point Sicily was a colony of first Spain, then France, and an Anglo-French cartel eventually took over the export of Sicilian sulfur, more than 500,000 tons of refined sulfur a year by late in the 19th Century. And also took over most of the profits, only returning enough to the people who actually did the work to keep them barely alive.
The ugliest part was how the sulfur was produced. Sulfur mixed with rock was dug by hand in around 700 Sicilian mines, many more than 200 meters deep. They were very hot, had a burning, toxic atmosphere, were often poorly engineered, leading to deadly collapses, and a very large part of the physical work of hauling the sulfur to the surface was done by small children, from 7 to 14 years. These young children, largely boys, were sold by their impoverished families to individual miners.
The way it worked was that an individual miner (not the owner of a mine) would offer the parents of a poor family the equivalent of twenty or thirty dollars to take a young child off their hands. Often for the families it was a choice between selling the child or seeing the family starve. Once the boys were sold, the only obligation of the miner was to feed them enough to keep them working 12 to 14 hours a day, and to give them some kind of a place to sleep. If the family wanted the return of the child, they had to be able to refund the money paid – mostly impossible. If the boy died in the mines, which was very far from rare, then the family got to keep the money. Otherwise, the kids were slaves until, often, they died or were utterly disabled.
These boys were known as “carusi,” and they carried hundred-pound loads of rock to the surface from deep in the mines. As a result, their bones were distorted, and if they survived the work they usually ended up crippled for life, never to emerge from the most desperate poverty. Beyond that the toxic air in the mines ruined lungs, burned the skin, and created conditions in which many carusi never lived beyond the age of 15. It was so hot in the mines that both carusi and the miners often worked naked, or very nearly naked. Late in the 19th Century there were, officially, over 40,000 sulfur miners in Sicily, many of them children. These conditions helped drive the massive emigration from Sicily in the late 19th and early 20th Century – mostly to the U.S.
Sicilians did not quietly accept this state of affairs, and the owners of sulfur mines and large wheat farms employed many gunmen, called campieri to enforce their will. In spite of the gunmen, there were strikes, and finally a mine in Montedoro operated cooperatively by the miners. It was quickly shut down by the government for “safety violations” as hundreds of other unsafe mines operated without interference. Montedoro itself was administered by a Communist city administration for decades.
A broader environmental impact came from the method of processing sulfur ore. Typically it was, as extracted from the ground, mixed with rock of various kinds (often mostly gypsum, a calcium sulphate). It was concentrated into nearly pure sulfur by building fires in huge ovens and then channeling the molten sulfur that ran out the bottom of the oven into the formation of ingots. But a lot of the sulfur burned in this process, producing huge quantities of sulfur dioxide – which became sulfuric acid in the air. All vegetation was destroyed in large swaths of the countryside. Even subsistence farming became impossible, forests disappeared, and the interior of Sicily still has a beauty whose austerity reflects 200 years of nearly complete environmental destruction.
The museum is a sobering experience of what an economy can do to a population and an environment when profits are more important than humans. The African-American educator Booker T. Washington toured Sicily, and a sulfur mine, in 1910 and remarked, “I am not prepared just now to say to what extent I believe in a physical hell in the next world, but a sulfur mine in Sicily is about the nearest thing to hell that I expect to see in this life.”
Sicily was saved from the terrible effects of the sulfur boom when the industry collapsed – as the result of, first, the development of new mining techniques in the U.S., and second, by the massive expansion of oil and natural gas production, which produces large volumes of sulfur as a waste product. Bulk sulfur now can be obtained for less than $30 a ton. Unfortunately, almost none of the enormous wealth produced by sulfur mining remained in Sicily to fund the development of new, cleaner industry – leaving staggering levels of youth unemployment. And sadly, the same terrible dynamic is being reproduced today in poor countries around the world with the extraction of tin, tungsten, lithium, diamonds and dozens of other valuable raw materials.
Many thanks to the Museo della Zulfara in Montedoro, Sicily and to Davide Petix for his excellent explanation of the sulfur industry and its history.