The 14-Year-Old Who Convinced People to Ban Dihydrogen Monoxide
In the spring of 1997, a 14-year-old’s school science fair project made a convincing argument to ban a dangerous chemical compound: dihydrogen monoxide, known as DHMO. Nathan Zohner, a junior high school student in Idaho, gave 50 of his fellow students a report called "Dihydrogen Monoxide: The Unrecognized Killer,” which accurately laid out the dangers of DHMO, convincing the majority of students to call for its ban. The experiment caused enough of a splash that it was picked up by The Washington Post.
The compound can corrode and rust metal and cause severe burns, the paper correctly argued. If you consume it, it can cause bloating and excessive urination and sweating. Thousands of people in the U.S. die from its accidental ingestion every year. If you are dependent on it, going through withdrawal can kill you. It’s found in significant quantities in acid rain, tumors, and more. Armed with this information and asked what the world should do about the threat of DHMO, 43 of Zohner’s classmates voted to ban the compound, citing its deadly nature. Lucky for them, no lawmaker would agree: DHMO is the chemical formula for water. Zohner—whose project won the grand prize at the regional science fair that year—wasn’t the first person to drive people into hysterics over the (real) dangers of DHMO, which can in fact burn, drown, and otherwise harm you in its various forms.
One of the earliest iterations of the hoax came from a Michigan paper called The Durand Express, which ran a piece decrying the harms of DHMO as an April Fool’s Day joke in 1983. Zohner’s experiment highlighted how easily young students—even those who had taken chemistry—could be taken in by misleading, fear-mongering scientific information. But scientific illiteracy isn’t just an issue with kids, and the widespread ability to Google basic facts hasn’t kept similar hoaxes and conspiracy theories from taking root in the public imagination today.
People still believe that fluoride in the water is a result of the government trying to poison them (fluoridation has been called one of the greatest public health achievements of the 20th century, causing a major decline in dental cavities and tooth loss across populations) or that vaccines cause autism (an idea, widely disproven, that was based on a 12-person study that used falsified data) or that deodorant can cause breast cancer (no scientific evidence supports this claim, according to the National Cancer Institute).
Consider the recent trend of “detoxing” propagated by publications like Goop. Most people don’t know what “toxins” they’re trying to filter out with their expensive juice cleanses to begin with, but doctors point out that the human body is pretty well equipped to handle the damaging materials you throw at it—like, say, alcohol. With no real scientific evidence to back it up, it’s the modern equivalent of leeching, experts have pointed out.
No doubt Gwyneth Paltrow would be as worried about DHMO as she is about underwire bras causing cancer (don’t worry, they don’t). The lesson of Zohner’s project, two decades later? Chemicals aren’t always bad. Everything is made of chemicals, and just because it has a name you can’t pronounce doesn’t mean it’s dangerous. It’s easy to get taken in by doomsday pseudoscience—because hey, pollution is truly dangerous and most of us haven’t taken a science class in decades. But with a little bit of skepticism and some basic research skills, we can all learn to sort through the false facts. In moderation, a little DHMO is a wonderful thing.