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Search on-line for dihydrogen monoxide and you will find repeated references to a hoax in 1997 by a young American student who started a petition entitled “How Gullible Are We?” His petition described a substance called dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO) as colourless and tasteless, but claimed that it was responsible for killing many thousands of people every year. Most of these deaths were caused by the accidental inhalation of this substance, but there were many other harmful effects too, and it was being deliberately included in a range of manufactured products. On the surface, the purpose of this petition was to gather signatures calling for the banning of this substance for innumerable reasons. There are far too many to list but they include:-

  • Accidental inhalation of the liquid form can cause death.
  • Contact with the gaseous form can cause severe burns.
  • Major companies were dumping uncontrolled quantities of waste DHMO into rivers without informing anyone.
  • Manufacturers were even using it as an additive to fruit juices and, worse still, putting it into jars of baby food.

In fact, the real purpose of the petition was not to ban this substance, it was to collect signatures of the gullible.

Why gullible?  The chemical that caused such a furore has a more common name.  Dihydrogen is the proper chemical name for two atoms of hydrogen joined together (H2). Oxygen is usually referred to as O2 because atoms of oxygen normally form into pairs but a single atom of oxygen is monoxide (O). So dihydrogen monoxide is two atoms of hydrogen (H2) plus a single atom of oxygen (O).  In other words it is H2O – water. Those who signed the petition to ban this “dangerous” substance were actually calling for a ban on water!

This is a magazine for koi enthusiasts, not chemistry students, so I made the joke a bit more obvious than the pure chemistry version. The label “DIHYDROGEN MONOXIDE (DE-HYDRATED) - ADD WATER TO RECONSTITUTE” on the glass demi-john in the centre of the picture should have raised suspicions; it simply means dried up water.

Everyone knows that water is sometimes called H2O but how many could have explained why? Well now you know, it is a shorthand way to write the chemical name for two hydrogen atoms (dihydrogen) stuck to one oxygen atom (monoxide).

There is a deeper, more serious point to my joke.  It is very easy for those who are unfamiliar with chemistry to believe that it is too complicated for them to understand and simply not try, but water quality problems are estimated to cause 90% of ornamental fish deaths.  Writing or talking about water quality inevitably means the occasional reference to chemistry.  Don’t be put off by this. Understanding water is the key to successful koi keeping, and remember:  We don’t keep fish, we keep........... dihydrogen monoxide.

The dihydrogen monoxide hoax may first have been widely perpetrated on the public in 1997 but it didn’t originate at that time.  It is much older.  Correct, but strange sounding, chemical names for water and other everyday substances have been around since the birth of chemistry, and playing around with those names as a way of setting traps for their students is what chemistry lecturers do for fun.

In my time I’ve caught a few victims, but have I, in turn, ever been caught out by a chemistry lecturer with a sense of humour?  I’m not saying!