Dangerous Dihydrogen Monoxide!

By Dr. Mark LeChevallier – November 17, 2011 – Comment

The Tulsa, Oklahoma city council voted recently to delay implementation of the introduction of Chloramine as a disinfectant in the city’s water supply, despite the chemical’s effective use in municipal systems elsewhere including such major cities as Los Angeles, Denver, Boston, Philadelphia, Miami, Dallas, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., and in some cases for as long as the past 90 years.  Many years of research has shown that conversion from free chlorine to chloramines (a combination of chlorine and ammonia) is an effective way of reducing the formation of disinfection by-products which have been associated with possible links to cancer.  The chemical does have to be used correctly, in the appropriate concentrations, but I must say that I was disheartened to think the council may have been swayed by scare tactics from special interests that can make the use of any “chemical” sound dangerous.

For me, it called to mind the famous and often repeated “dihydrogen monoxide” hoax.

One version of this hoax was unveiled more than 20 years ago at the University of California, Santa Cruz, when students circulated a flier with a “contamination warning” about dihydrogen monoxide, noting that the substance was used as a “fire retardant,” an “industrial coolant,” and many other potentially alarming uses.  The substance, of course, was simply…water.

The term dihydrogen monoxide follows the basic rules of chemical nomenclature in referring to the composition of water – H2O – with its two hydrogen atoms and single oxygen atom in each molecule.  The term, though technically correct, is almost never used and is not among the published names for water recognized by IUPAC (the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, since you ask!), the international body that standardizes chemical nomenclature.  Nonetheless, it’s a name that sounds dangerous, most likely due to its similarity to the term carbon monoxide and our concerns of “monoxide poisoning.”

The hoax has had a life of its own, and the Australian Parliament even got in on the act decades ago, calling (on April Fools’ Day) for an international ban on dihydrogen monoxide.

In 2004, (back in California again, where they like their practical jokes, I guess) the city council of a local community nearly fell victim to the hoax, coming close to a vote on banning containers comprised partially of dihydrogen monoxide.

I do not mean to suggest that the debate over Chloramine is a hoax.  I am mindful, though, that it doesn’t take much to stir fears by referring to “chemicals” placed in the water supply.  Let’s look at the hard science behind water treatment and make our decisions from there.  For more information look at the USEPA web page on chloramines:  http://water.epa.gov/lawsregs/rulesregs/sdwa/mdbp/chloramines_index.cfm#two