Dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO) and hydrogen hydroxide (HOH) are technically accurate but rarely-used names for water. They are a running joke among chemists, about environmental activists and others, to illustrate how general ignorance of science can lead to wildly misplaced fears.
Perhaps the best-known hoax involving DHMO was carried out by Nathan Zohner, a 14-year-old, junior high student at Idaho Falls, Idaho. Reputedly, he succeeded in gathering 43 votes to ban the chemical out of 50 people surveyed among his classmates in 1997. (Zohner's project was not original; similar spoof petitions have already been circulating for years.)
Zohner received the first prize at Greater Idaho Falls Science Fair for analysis of the results of his survey. The success of this hoax has been widely publicized, and dihydrogen monoxide became an archetype of civic consciousness gone amiss due to lack of informed reasoning.
The list of supposed risks associated with dihydrogen monoxide include:
- The substance is a major component of acid rain;
- Contributes to soil erosion;
- Causes corrosion and breakdown of metals and electrical equipment;
- Excessive ingestion may cause various unpleasant, though generally not life-threatening, effects;
- Prolonged contact with its solid form results in severe tissue damage;
- Inhalation, even in small quantities, may cause death;
- Its gaseous form may cause severe burns;
- It has been found in the tumors of terminal cancer patients;
- Nevertheless, the government and corporations continue using it widely, heedless of its grave dangers.
In March 2004 the municipality of Aliso Viejo, California came close to banning styrofoam cups because dihydrogen monoxide was used in their production.
Canadian high school student Kate Dalgleish, with the help of Mikael Sydor, circulated a petition to ban the chemical as part of the Western Canada High School film festival. Several high school chemistry teachers and university science students signed the petition, which asked the municipal government to ban the 'dangerous chemical' under a ficticious Hazardous Chemical Act. The film won the film festival and was circulated through several local high schools.
The idea was also used for an episode of the Penn & Teller show Bullshit!, where they had self-proclaimed environmentalists sign a petition to ban DHMO.
A similar hoax was perpetrated in Britain around the idea of an addictive, fattening substance known as 'CAKE', as part of the spoof news show Brass Eye. Some politicians were persuaded to speak out against this menace to society.