Dihydrogen monoxide hoax
The dihydrogen monoxide hoax involves calling water by the unfamiliar chemical name "dihydrogen monoxide" (DHMO), and listing some of water's effects in an alarming manner, such as the fact that it accelerates corrosion and can cause severe burns. The hoax often calls for dihydrogen monoxide to be regulated, labeled as hazardous, or banned. It illustrates how the lack of scientific literacy and an exaggerated analysis can lead to misplaced fears.
The hoax gained renewed popularity in the late 1990s when a 14-year-old student collected anti-DHMO petitions for a science project about gullibility. The story has since been used in science education to encourage critical thinking.
The hoax works because "dihydrogen monoxide" may sound dangerous to those with a limited knowledge of chemistry or who hold to an ideal of a "chemical-free" life (chemophobia). The claims made about the compound are all true, however, they are presented in a deliberately one-sided manner by using a combination of dysphemism and an assortment of logical fallacies (such as the cherry picking of facts). Also, one familiar usage of the term "monoxide" is in reference to the highly toxic gas "carbon monoxide", and the simplified term "monoxide poisoning" is commonly used to refer to poisoning by this colorless and odorless substance. The term "dihydrogen monoxide poisioning" in this context refers to drowning (a very real and legitimate danger), in an unconventional manner to draw an artificial parallel to carbon monoxide poisoning.
A 1983 April Fool's edition of the Durand Express, a weekly newspaper in Durand, Michigan, reported that "dihydrogen oxide" had been found in the city's water pipes, and warned that it was fatal if inhaled, and could produce blistering vapors. The first appearance of the hoax on the internet was attributed by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to the so-called "Coalition to Ban Dihydrogen Monoxide," a parody organization started by Craig Jackson following the initial newsgroup discussions.
This new version of the hoax was created by Eric Lechner, Lars Norpchen, and Matthew Kaufman—housemates while attending the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1989, revised by Jackson in 1994, and brought to widespread public attention in 1997 when Nathan Zohner, a 14-year-old student, gathered petitions to ban "DHMO" as the basis of his science project, titled "How Gullible Are We?".
Jackson's original site included the following warning:
- is also known as hydroxyl acid, and is the major component of acid rain.
- contributes to the "greenhouse effect".
- may cause severe burns.
- contributes to the erosion of our natural landscape.
- accelerates corrosion and rusting of many metals.
- may cause electrical failures and decreased effectiveness of automobile brakes.
- has been found in excised tumors of terminal cancer patients.
Despite the danger, dihydrogen monoxide is often used:
- as an industrial solvent and coolant.
- in nuclear power plants.
- in the production of Styrofoam.
- as a fire retardant.
- in many forms of cruel animal research.
- in the distribution of pesticides. Even after washing, produce remains contaminated by this chemical.
- as an additive in certain "junk-foods" and other food products.
Molecular terminology and naming conventions
The water molecule has the chemical formula H2O, meaning each molecule of water is composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. Literally, the term "dihydrogen monoxide" means "two hydrogen, one oxygen", consistent with its molecular formula: the prefix di- in dihydrogen means "two", the prefix mon- in monoxide means "one", and an oxide is a compound that contains one or more oxygen atoms.
Using chemical nomenclature, various names for water are in common use within the scientific community. Some such names include hydrogen oxide, as well as an alkali name of hydrogen hydroxide, and several acid names such as hydric acid, hydroxic acid, hydroxyl acid, and hydroxilic acid. The term "hydroxyl acid" used in the original text is a non-standard name.
Under the 2005 revisions of IUPAC nomenclature of inorganic chemistry, there is no single correct name for every compound. The primary function of chemical nomenclature is to ensure that each name refers, unambiguously, to a single substance. It is considered less important to ensure that each substance should have a single name, although the number of acceptable names is limited. Water is one acceptable name for this compound, even though it is neither a systematic nor an international name and is specific to just one phase of the compound. The other IUPAC recommendation is oxidane.
DHMO in education
Public efforts involving DHMO
- In 1989, Eric Lechner, Lars Norpchen and Matthew Kaufman circulated a Dihydrogen Monoxide contamination warning on the University of California, Santa Cruz campus via photocopied fliers. The concept originated one afternoon when Kaufman recalled a similar warning about "Hydrogen Hydroxide" that had been published in his mother's hometown paper, the Durand (Michigan) Express, and the three then worked to coin a term that "sounded more dangerous." Lechner typed up the original warning flier on Kaufman's computer, and a trip to the local photocopying center followed that night.
- In 1994, Craig Jackson created a web page for the Coalition to Ban DHMO.
- The Friends of Hydrogen Hydroxide was created by Dan Curtis Johnson partly as a foil on the Coalition page, to provide evidence of 'misguided' supporters of dihydrogen monoxide. This form of collaborative connivance is a classic tool of internet spoofers.
- In 1997, Nathan Zohner, a 14-year-old junior high student at Eagle Rock Junior High School in Idaho Falls, Idaho, gathered 43 votes to ban the chemical, out of 50 people surveyed among his classmates. Zohner received the first prize at Greater Idaho Falls Science Fair for analysis of the results of his survey. In recognition of his experiment, journalist James K. Glassman coined the term "Zohnerism" to refer to "the use of a true fact to lead a scientifically and mathematically ignorant public to a false conclusion."
- In 1998, drawing inspiration from Jackson's web page and Zohner's research, Tom Way created a website at DHMO.org, including links to some legitimate sites such as the Environmental Protection Agency and National Institutes of Health.
- On April 1, 1998 (April Fools' Day), a member of the Australian Parliament announced a campaign to ban dihydrogen monoxide internationally.
- In 2001 a staffer in New Zealand Green Party MP Sue Kedgley's office responded to a request for support for a campaign to ban dihydrogen monoxide by saying she was "absolutely supportive of the campaign to ban this toxic substance". This was criticized in a press release by the National Party, one of whose MPs fell for the very same hoax six years later.
- In 2002, radio talk show host Neal Boortz mentioned on the air that the Atlanta water system had been checked and found to be contaminated with dihydrogen monoxide, and set about relating the hazards associated with that "dangerous" chemical. A local TV station even covered the 'scandal'. A spokesperson for the city's water system told the reporter that there was no more dihydrogen monoxide in the system than what was allowed under the law.
- The idea was used for a segment of an episode of the Penn & Teller show Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, in which actress Kris McGaha and a camera crew gathered signatures from people considering themselves "concerned environmentalists" to sign a petition to ban DHMO.
- In March 2004, Aliso Viejo, California, almost considered banning the use of foam containers at city-sponsored events because dihydrogen monoxide is part of their production. A paralegal had asked the city council to put it on the agenda; he later attributed it to poor research. The bill was pulled from the agenda before it could come to a vote, but not before the city received a raft of bad publicity.
- In 2006, in Louisville, Kentucky, David Karem, executive director of the Waterfront Development Corporation, a public body that operates Waterfront Park, wished to deter bathers from using a large public fountain. "Counting on a lack of understanding about water's chemical makeup," he arranged for signs reading: "DANGER! – WATER CONTAINS HIGH LEVELS OF HYDROGEN – KEEP OUT" to be posted on the fountain at public expense.
- Occasionally, petitions on the UK Government e-petitions website on this subject have been closed or rejected.
- In 2007 Jacqui Dean, New Zealand National Party MP, fell for the hoax, writing a letter to Associate Minister of Health Jim Anderton asking "Does the Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs have a view on the banning of this drug?"
- On April 1, 2010, Canadian Member of Parliament Andrew Scheer used the DHMO hoax as the basis for an April Fool's Day "media release" on his web site, in which he claimed to have tabled a bill to ban the substance from all federal government buildings. Scheer became Canada's speaker of the House in 2011.
- In February 2011, during the campaign of the Finnish parliamentary election, a voting advice application asked the candidates whether the availability of "hydric acid also known as dihydrogen monoxide" should be restricted. 49% of the candidates answered in favor of the restriction.
- In April 2013, two presenters at Gator Country 101.9, a radio station in Lee County, Florida, told listeners dihydrogen monoxide was coming out of their water taps as part of an April Fool's Day prank and were suspended for a few days by the station's general manager, Tony Renda. Renda later told NewsPress: "It is one thing when radio stations change their format or other crazy things they do. But you are messing with one of the big three, food, water or shelter. They just went too far; I just knew I didn't like that." The prank resulted in several calls by consumers to the local utility company, which sent out a release stating that the water was safe.
Use in public debate
In public debate, the dihydrogen monoxide hoax is occasionally used as a straw man to build an argument by analogy with which to attack criticism of use of other chemicals. Writers objecting to anything from a gluten-free diet fad to Coca-Cola’s 2014 phase-out of BVO (brominated vegetable oil) will attempt to discredit these initiatives by comparing them to the dihydrogen monoxide ban proposal.
An editorial may argue "The point here is that it’s easy to make anything sound like it’s scary. People drown in water every day, and water is used as a flame retardant. People tend to assume that things with scary names and vague descriptions are bad for you" or "search online for information about dihydrogen monoxide, and you'll find a long list of scary and absolutely true warnings about it: used by the nuclear power industry, vital to the production of everything from pesticides to Styrofoam, present in tumors removed from cancer patients, and guaranteed fatal to humans in large quantities." before making a case that the world is made up entirely of chemicals and that not all chemicals are bad for you.
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