The story probably begins with the 1983 April edition of the Durand Express (a weekly newspaper of Michigan) which published an article about a very dangerous chemical prevalent in the water pipes which if inhaled could result in death and the vapours of which can lead to severe blisters. The paper revealed the identity of the chemical in the end but this article sort of set a precedent to a lot of incidents in the future.
Now, what is DHMO?
According to the Coalition to Ban DHMO website, DHMO is a “colorless, odorless, tasteless, and kills uncounted thousands of people every year. Most of these deaths are caused by accidental inhalation of DHMO, but the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide do not end there. Prolonged exposure to its solid form causes severe tissue damage. Symptoms of DHMO ingestion can include excessive sweating and urination, and possibly a bloated feeling, nausea, vomiting and body electrolyte imbalance. For those who have become dependent, DHMO withdrawal means certain death.” Also, this is the same substance the Durand Express was talking about!
The dangers of the chemical do not end there. Some websites claim that the chemical is so caustic that it can cause the corrosion and rusting of many metals and is a major component of acid rain. It is also found in excised tumors of terminal cancer patients and contributes to the greenhouse effect. Surprisingly, the presence of the said chemical has been confirmed in every river, stream, lake, and industry in the world.
Well, reading these facts can lead any person to think why the heck is the chemical not banned yet? To many, it may seem to be an open and shut case. But before getting into further discussion, let’s see another incident from history.
In 1997, a 14-year-old student at Eagle Rock Junior High School in Idaho Falls, Idaho named Nathan Zohner gathered 43 votes to ban the chemical, out of 50 ninth-graders surveyed. Zohner eventually won the 1st prize in a science fair because of analyzing the results of the survey. The implications of Nathan’s research led to the creation of a new term “Zohnerism”, defined as “the use of a true fact to lead a scientifically and mathematically ignorant public to a false conclusion.”
These incidents related to DHMO show that even the most innocuous of substances can be made to sound like a dangerous threat to human life. In case you still haven’t realized, we are talking of Di-Hydrogen Mono Oxide or as we normally call it Water.
The DHMO parody refers to calling water in its not-so-well-known chemical name dihydrogen monoxide and referring to its normal properties in an alarming manner often resulting in panic. There are surprisingly many websites that have been created for this specific purpose. For example: http://www.dhmo.org/facts.html.
As stated earlier, this entire DHMO hoax started as an April fool prank. And guess what, there are several recent instances where people have exploited the DHMO parody for their 1st April jokes. In 2013, two radio personalities from Florida played the water prank stating that dihydrogen monoxide was present in the water tanks of the residents of the Lee county! The prank created chaos and panic in the residents who incessantly called the authorities until they clarified that their water was safe! The two of them were temporarily suspended following this incident!
Well, another interesting thing is that it’s not always the general public that is fooled by this hoax. A Member of Parliament from New Zealand fell prey to this trap when an online blogger sought her help in banning DHMO stating its harmful effects. She eventually wrote a letter to the then Associate Health Minister, asking if the Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs had a view on banning the drug.
The health ministry’s response “Thank you for your letter of 23 August 2007 about your constituent call for the ban on dihydrogen monoxide, (but) di-hydrogen monoxide is water.” She was taken aback by this but she saw the funny side.
I can go on listing more incidents that go on to show how exploited this DHMO parody is. And yes, we may indeed have a great laugh when we crack jokes related to this or other similar things. But this entire episode also highlights an important thing- how easy it is to manipulate the people who don’t have much scientific/chemistry knowledge. I think science communication and people with chemical know-how can play an important role in this regard!
Image Sources: Google, dhmo.org
By Raibat Sarker, Department of Chemistry, IISER Bhopal.
About the author: Raibat is a 3rd-year Integrated MS student at the Department of Chemistry, IISER Bhopal and a KVPY fellow. Apart from being a big foodie and FCB fan, he loves trekking and camping. When he’s not sciencing, eating, or complaining about his bad luck, you will find him hooked into novels or planning his next trek! Also, he is associated with The Qrius Rhino.
Other articles by the author that you may find interesting:
- The Reason Behind Earth’s perfume!
- SOLAR POWERED SEA SLUGS!
- Something Interesting and Bizarre about Stick Insects!
- Memory transfer between two organisms! YES, you read that right!
- The Doorway Effect!
- Metals vs Microbes- the Oligodynamic Effect!
- Does hot water freeze faster than cold water? The Mpemba Effect!