Monday, 6 February 2012

On Chemophobia - Dihydrogen Monoxide

Perhaps one of the more interesting issues I encounter as a chemist is that of chemophobia, an irrational fear of chemicals.

In my experience it emerges as a lack of understanding of what chemicals are, the fact that everything in our world is composed of chemicals, and most important of all, a lack of understanding of the relationship between dose and effect.

In relation to dose, the German/Swiss alchemist Phillipus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, better known as Paracelsus, said it best:

"All things are poison, and nothing is without poison; only the dose permits something not to be poisonous

Or as it is more simply put:


"The dose makes the poison"


One of the advantages of working with high school students in forensic/chemistry workshops is that it allows me to gauge their understanding of the chemical world. Whether it be a discussion on what the term "organic" means, the painful debate over the safety of vaccinations, or what everyday objects contain, the questions and feedback I receive are truly fascinating.

Perhaps one of my favourite demonstrations draws on the rather popular Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO) hoax of years gone by. In my demonstrations, it begins by politely asking for volunteers from the audience, and if none are forthcoming, a bribe of crime scene tape works a charm. After the volunteers are assembled, I don my labcoat, goggles, and some nitrile gloves before continuing.

I then ask my volunteers to produce one of their hands, preferably their non-writing hand, before nervously producing a vial containing that dastardly compound, DHMO. After gingerly placing a drop on each of the volunteers' preferred and proferred hands, a short statement regarding the dangers of DHMO is read out. Ususally DHMO is switched out for the IUPAC name "oxidane", in order to throw off any students aware of the DHMO hoax.

Hide the children! It's oxidane!
The students are then questioned on any ill effects that they are experiencing following exposure. The effects I've had rattled off to me are curious, and have included anything from tremors, sweating and increased heart rate, to headaches, stomach cramps and dizziness. To quell any further worries, the ruse is revealed, and the students calm down significantly.

The goal of all this is to demonstrate that an awareness of chemistry, if not an active interest in it, combined with a healthy dose of skepticism, can prove invaluable.After all, it pays to be aware of the world around you, and to have at the very least a basic knowledge of how things work. This brings to mind a very salient quote by Neil Degrasse Tyson:

"If you're scientifically literate, the world looks very different to you"

In future posts, I will further discuss chemophobia and how people perceive chemicals, more broadly, chemistry.

Well, that wraps up this post. Thanks for reading!

1 comment:

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