The subject of the hoax, water, has a molecule consisting of two hydrogen
atoms and one oxygen
atom, thus the name dihydrogen monoxide.
The dihydrogen monoxide hoax involves calling water by the unfamiliar chemical name "dihydrogen monoxide" (DHMO), and listing some of water's effects in a particularly alarming manner, such as accelerating corrosion and causing suffocation. The hoax often calls for dihydrogen monoxide to be banned, regulated, and labeled as dangerous. It illustrates how a 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, Nathan Zohner, collected anti-DHMO petitions for a science project about gullibility. The story has since been used in science education to encourage critical thinking and discussion of the scientific method.
A 1983 April Fools' Day 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 at UC Santa Cruz following on-campus postings and newsgroup discussions in 1990.
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 1989-1990, revised by Craig 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:
A mock material safety data sheet--a list of information about potentially dangerous materials used in research and industry--has also been created for H2O.
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 an oxygen atom attached to another atom in an ionic compound.
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 unambiguous 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 (its liquid form). The other IUPAC recommendation is oxidane, which is used by hoax industry groups promoting DHMO as a safe industrial chemical while hinting at dangers and government conspiracies.
Public efforts involving the DHMO hoax
- In 1989-1990, several students circulated a dihydrogen monoxide contamination warning on the University of California, Santa Cruz campus via photocopied fliers.
- In 1994, Craig Jackson created a web page for the Coalition to Ban DHMO.
- The Friends of Hydrogen Hydroxide website was created by Dan Curtis Johnson; partly as a foil on the Coalition page, claiming to oppose its "subversive agenda". The site points out that hydrogen hydroxide is "environmentally safe" and "enhances the functionality, growth, and health of many forms of life".
- In 1997, Nathan Zohner, a 14-year-old student at Eagle Rock Junior High School in Idaho Falls, Idaho, gathered 43 votes to ban the chemical, out of 50 ninth-graders surveyed. 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, a Canadian Conservative Member of Parliament, Andrew Scheer, used the DHMO hoax as the basis for an April Fool's Day "media release" on his website, in which he claimed to have presented a bill to ban the substance from all federal government buildings.
- 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 radio personalities at Gator Country 101.9, a station in Lee County, Florida, told listeners that 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. The prank resulted in several calls by consumers to the local utility company, which sent out a release stating that the water was safe.
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