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Dihydrogen monoxide: Facts you must know about this common food-additive (or, how to be a critical thinker)

Dihydrogen monoxide is one of the most common food additives. You have most likely added it to your food without thinking about it. We are debunking the myths about this extremely common chemical, and calling for a factual debate about the safety of our food.

An extremely common chemical

Dihydrogen monoxide is one of the most common chemicals on our planet. All serial killers have admitted to use it. You ingest it every day. As a matter of fact, you cannot live without it. And, if you paid attention in chemistry class, you probably already know that Dihydrogen Monoxide is the chemical name for water, for which the chemical formula is H2O, consisting of one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms. The technical naming convention comes from Latin: “Di” means two in Latin, and “mono” means one.

Therefore, “Dihydrogen Monoxide” literally means two-hydrogen-one-oxygen.

Although one of the highest risks with water is drowning in it, it still fills all the requirements to be considered a “chemical” with a Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) required if water is used in a laboratory. Here are two examples of MSDS for water from the laboratory equipment and chemical suppliers Sigma-Aldrich and ScienceLab.com

Don’t get fooled by chemical names

Every substance – natural or man-made – has a chemical name. In fact, you cannot tell if something is synthetic or toxic just because it “sounds chemical” or because the chemical name is used. Would you really drink a container of burning hot aqueous solution containing 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine? Wouldn’t an ice cold bottle of Agent Orange sound so much more healthy and natural?

Well, don’t let the “chemical” name fool you; 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine is the chemical name for caffeine while Agent Orange was the nickname of a controversially toxic herbicide used to destroy crops, bushes, and tree during the Vietnam War. Agent Orange contained the highly toxic 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzodioxin, described as “perhaps the most toxic molecule ever synthesized by man” [1, cited in 2].

Petition to ban water within city limits

Don’t feel too bad if you’ve ever fallen victim to this hoax, or thought that this article would give you juicy details about some carcinogenic food-additive found in your Mac-n-Cheese. Even government representatives have fallen into the trap. There are several websites petitioning a ban of dihydrogen monoxide, or DHMO, as they prefer to call it. One petition to ban DHMO within the city limits made it all the way to the city council of Aliso Viejo in Orange County, California. The petition was luckily stopped before it reached debate in the chamber, and the city manager David Norman admit it to be “embarrassing”, but blamed a paralegal that did bad research [3].

The dihydrogen monoxide hoax has been around for decades. A newspaper in Durand, Michigan reported on April fool’s day 1983 that the dangerous chemical dihydrogen monoxide was found in the city’s water supply. The article explained that inhalation “nearly always results in death”. In opposition to other occurrences of the hoax, this article did likely not fool too many because the end of the article revealed that the chemical formula of this substance was “H2O” [4]. However, some of the internet versions are not such obvious jokes such as the most well-known www.DMHO.org. There are many more varieties of this story: just search “dihydrogen monoxide hoax” through your favorite search engine for a long list of examples if you are curious.

Dihydrogen Monoxide

Everything can be presented as a threat with careful wording.

Decisions based on fear, not on facts

The dihydrogen monoxide hoax is a parody on the hyped health alerts circulating on the internet every day. It also illustrates how the lack of scientific literacy can lead to needless fear and irrational actions. The hoax presents essentially true statements such as “causes death due to accidental inhalation” (drowning), “prolonged exposure to solid DHMO causes severe tissue damage” (frostbite from ice or snow) and “gaseous DHMO can cause severe burns” (injury from exposure to hot steam) [5]. Presented in such a fragmented, isolated, and grossly misleading way, anything can be made to sound like a severe threat. It really exposes the need for critical thinking and education.

A potentially more concerning result of this careless use of scientific language and the exploitation of many people’s lack of scientific literacy has been illustrated by the recent blow-up between two popular bloggers with millions of followers: “The Food Babe” (http://foodbabe.com/) and “The Science Babe” (http://www.scibabe.com/). Although their names may sound a bit inane, the debate is serious and important. The Science Babe, a.k.a. Yvette Guinevere has a bachelor degree in chemistry, and a master’s degree in forensic science, and would be expected to know a bit about science. The Food Babe, a.k.a. Vani Hari says that she has “never claimed to be a nutritionist” (instead she calls herself “an investigator”), but her extremely popular blog is full of nutritional recommendations based on sometimes very questionable science (or outright pseudoscience, as in this article about airplane travel that is now removed from her website [6]). With millions of devoted followers – many of them parents – this is a real health concern.

We are not going to bore you with the whole Food Babe vs. Science Babe story here – you can find it in the references below if you are interested – but there is one important statement at the core of this debate: “Avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce.” Although not originally from the Food Babe, she has used the phrase multiple times [7].

This brings us back to the original topic of this article: all substances have chemical names, and many of them are almost impossible to pronounce no matter how old or young you are. Perhaps you don’t want to give your 9 year old too much 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine (caffeine), but would you ever serve your kid pancakes that has (9Z,12Z)-octadeca-9,12-dienoic acid in the ingredient list? You probably wouldn’t. That’s too bad, because he or she just missed out on delicious pancakes made with sunflower oil [8].

Citizens’ concerns are of great value, when they are based on science

All that said, not all chemicals and food-additives are good for you, nor are they are all bad. The safety of our food is one of the most important issues affecting our health, and we must all make the most honest effort as responsible citizens to bring attention to all and any chemicals that may pose a threat to our health. No one deserves to eat toxic food. No one deserves to have their health deteriorate because they unknowingly ingested dangerous chemicals, perhaps because the owner of a large company made a lot of money on it.

No one should stop you from fighting for what is right, may it be in the laboratory or on the internet. In fact, some responsible companies have already heard the outcries, and additives found to have possible health consequences having been already replaced with healthier alternatives. But we can’t act out of fear – we must act out of scientific fact. Acting out of fear will have the opposite effect, taking attention away from the real health concerns.

What we need is an honest conversation, with clear facts presented so we can make direct, sincere, and informed decisions about the safety of our food. We need to push aside the pseudoscience, the fear, and the misconstrued noise about our food and take action based upon the best scientific information available to us.

Even if you are not a scientist, you need to be science literate!

It is easy to fall into the trap of scientific-sounding arguments, particularly when used by really popular people with best-selling book titles. You might say “But I am not a scientist, how can I know?” You don’t have to be a “scientist” to base your decisions on science. We often think of science as a profession, but science is really not a profession or avocation, it is a way of thinking. Don’t listen blindly to self-proclaimed experts or your favorite blogger, particularly not in decisions about your health or your children’s health; always demand evidence to back up conclusions. If somebody claims that you shouldn’t eat something that you cannot pronounce, ask for the evidence for that recommendation. It is a very elegant argument, but that doesn’t make it correct.

We call this “science literacy” and it is one of the most important skills in your daily life. Science literacy is about basing your decision – large or small – on science. May it be food additives or vaccinations, whatever the majority of the international scientific community believes is the best option, is likely your best choice as well. Most scientists are not paid by big pharmaceutical companies, they are dedicated scientists spending long days in the lab or the field in search of the truth. They are often quite poorly paid, considering their many years of education and huge student debt. They do it for the love of science and a desire to find the truth. The latest scientific facts may be quite different from the “truth” promoted by popular “experts”, often more interested in readers and book deals than the actual truth.

That said, the scientific community does not always agree to 100 %, they are all humans and have different perspectives. But if 99 scientists say that a wildfire will destroy your house, while one scientists and your favorite blogger say that it likely won’t, would you cancel your fire insurance? You don’t have to be a scientist to realize that you probably should keep it. In the same way, you don’t have to be a scientist to base your daily decisions on science; just like you don’t need a math degree to keep track of your personal spending. You just need to know enough – and be willing to learn more about subject you don’t know enough about – so you can ask the right questions and think critically.

Be smart – be science literate!

So remember, before freaking out about a chemical name – research it first. Even the English version of Wikipedia is better than many blogs (the Wikipedia pages in other languages may not be as well reviewed and maintained, but the English version is quite good). Although Wikipedia is not peer-reviewed in the same way as a scientific journal, it has hundreds of thousands of people around the world checking the facts, and most importantly – linking to the original sources. We often use Wikipedia to find scientific sources on a specific topic, instead of spending days combing through thousands of publications in scientific databases.

Researching the original sources before making your decisions will make you Science Literate and make you base your decision on science instead of pseudoscience. That is something that is really smart and something to be proud of!

More resources:

If you have 16 minutes to spare, this TED talk by Emily Calandrelli talks about the importance of science/STEM literacy is really worth watching (don’t get fooled by the title, the talk is excellent):

https://youtu.be/y44nqo11Fh0

Background photo:

From Pixabay.com by “roegger“, Creative Commons CC0

References:

[1] Galston, Authur (Feb 1979). "Herbicides: A Mixed Blessing". Bioscience 29 (2): 85–90. doi:10.2307/1307744. JSTOR 1307744. Retrieved 2014-09-13, reference found through Wikipedia Accessed April 10, 2015.

[2] Schuck, 1987: p. 18, http://books.google.com/books?id=waTdqLYCyPMC&pg=PA18#v=onepage&q&f=false Accessed April 10, 2015

[3] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2004/mar/24/usa.worlddispatch Accessed April 10, 2015

[4] https://web.archive.org/web/20010418103649/http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/af_1983.html Accessed April 10, 2015

[5] http://www.dhmo.org/facts.html Accessed April 10, 2015

[6] http://www.freezepage.com/1415667665TBMRBWICKU Accessed April 10, 2015

[7] http://foodbabe.com/2014/12/06/food-babe-critics/, Accessed April 11, 2015

[8] http://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/5280450#section=Top

 

 

About The Author
Eva Hakansson