Welcome to another episode of Molecular Mondays, a special biweekly series here on Planet Pailly where we take a closer look at the atoms and molecules that make up our physical universe, both in reality and in science fiction.
I had a really bad time in high school chemistry. That was the closest I ever came to failing a class, and the experience sort of traumatized me. But there was one lesson from my high school chemistry class that I did learn well. It involved a chemical with the very scary sounding name dihydrogen monoxide.
The teacher gave us a handout to read, laying out the case that dihydrogen monoxide (also known as DHMO) is a horrifyingly dangerous chemical that should be banned. DHMO has been found to be present in cancer cells, and yet it continues to be incorporated into our processed foods. It’s one of the chemical components of acid rain, and yet we keep putting more of it into our atmosphere. Inhaling DHMO has caused deaths, the U.S. Navy has conducted weapons tests using DHMO, etc, etc, etc…
My teacher seemed a bit like an aging hippie and probably an environmentalist too, so I thought I understood why he was having us read this. I had the vague suspicion that I was being scammed somehow, that this article about dihydrogen monoxide might not be telling the whole story. But when the teacher asked us what should be done, I went along with the crowd and voted to outlaw DHMO.
Everyone in the class voted to outlaw it, except one kid: the stereotypical super smart, super nerdy kid (every class has one, I think). He just sat there with a big grin on his face. The teacher, who was also grinning at this point, asked what was so funny, and the smart kid of the class proceeded to explain that “dihydrogen” means two hydrogen atoms, and “monoxide” means one oxygen atom: H20. We’d just voted to outlaw water.
Going back through everything it said in the handout:
- DHMO is found in cancer cells… yes, it’s found in all your cells.
- It’s in processed foods… sure, unless your food’s been dehydrated.
- It’s in acid rain… because acid rain is still rain.
- We’re putting it into the atmosphere… yes, everytime we boil water.
- Inhaling it can kill you… that’s called drowning.
- The U.S. Navy uses it… obviously!
I guess the lesson I learned that day had more to do with linguistics than chemistry. Just because something has a scary-sounding name, that does not necessarily mean it’s a scary thing. People may try to deceive you while hiding the truth in plain sight. This is especially true with science, where you can rely on the science illiteracy of the general public.
So stay skeptical, and whenever you’re confronted with a strange and unfamiliar word, don’t be afraid to ask what that word actually means.
P.S.: High school students aren’t the only ones who’ve fallen for the DHMO hoax. At least one politician, when confronted with similar facts about this very dangerous chemical, called for outlawing water.