Sulfur is commonly used to produce sulfuric acid, which is used in the extraction of phosphate for fertilizer, according to the Royal Society of Chemistry. It is also used in black gunpowder, as a fungicide and in vulcanizing black rubber.
Sulfur is a naturally occurring element that is often associated with volcanic activity, states the RSC. However, it contaminates fossil fuels, causing acid rain when the fuels are burnt unpurified, which is why sulfur is almost entirely acquired through purification processes that remove sulfur from natural gas, oil and coal. This element is used in bleaching paper and preserving foods. Sulfate derivatives are used in numerous surfactants and detergents, and around 100 million tons of calcium sulfate are mined every year for use in cement and plaster.
The RSC explains that sulfur is important to all living things. Plants and algae obtain sulfate from the soil or seawater. Sulfur is also used to produce two of the essential amino acids required for protein formation. The element sulfur and its sulfate form are nontoxic, but sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and carbon disulfide are harmful, particularly hydrogen sulfide, which can cause death by respiratory paralysis. Sulfur dioxide, which is produced from the burning of coal and unpurified oil, is a major contributor to acid rain.