Saturday, 7 July 2012

Straight Talk on DHMO

     By now you've probably heard from some of those agitating for a ban on DHMO (dihydrogen monoxide). I'm somewhat distressed at the misinformation and distortions offered by these activists, and felt  it was high time someone provided a more balanced perspective.

Where does DHMO come from?
     Although it is frequently and easily synthesized in laboratories and as a by-product of industrial processes, most DHMO is actually extracted from naturally occuring deposits. In fact, Canada is blessed with some of the most abundant and high-quality DHMO of any country in the world, and although most of it is consumed domestically, we do export a fair bit of it, both in pure form and as an additive to other products.

Is it dangerous?
    The dangers described by the anti-DHMO activists are real. DHMO can be very dangerous indeed. Inhalation of DHMO can interfere with the lungs' ability to absorb oxygen. Prolongued exposure to DHMO in any form can cause harm, and although that caused by the gaseous and solid forms are more severe, even liquid DHMO is known to cause skin to become prematurely wrinkled. The earthquake that hit Japan last year and damaged a nuclear powerplant was greatly exacerbated by a massive spill of contaminated DHMO.
    I don't mean to downplay the seriousness of these and other dangers. However, as anyone who's ever worked with the stuff (as I have) knows, it's perfectly harmless when you take just a few common-sense precautions. You can literally drink a glass of pure, room-temperature DHMO and suffer no ill effects; your kidneys are actually more efficient at removing DHMO from your system than any other compound. Not only that, but a surprising amount of DHMO is excreted through your sweat glands.
    To be sure, humans have an especially high tolerance for DHMO among land mammals, but most creatures do have considerable resistance to mild exposure. Marine creatures are even more resilient. I once kept a live goldfish alive in a jar of pure DHMO for a week.
    It's true that we dump truly astonishing amounts of DHMO into our rivers and streams through sewage and industrial waste. However, exposure to solar radiation removes many times more DHMO from the ocean than we humans release into it. We could double, even triple our industrial and municipal output of DHMO, and the oceans would scarcely notice. Desert ecosystems are the most vulnerable to damage by DHMO dumping, but even there, sunlight quickly cleans it up; you'd have to dump an awful lot of the stuff to destroy the desert habitat.

Are there alternatives?
    DHMO is one of the most useful compounds ever discovered. It is used as a coolant, a propellant, a solvent, a hydraulic fluid, a disinfectant, a fire retardant, and even as a food additive. It is a vital reactant, consumed in the production of concrete. It is widely used in health care. It is indispensible to modern agriculture, and is even heavily used by organic farmers. However, more than 90% of the world's DHMO is reserved for use in fisheries and transportation, to control the bouyancy and stability of ocean-going vessels. It is no exaggeration to say that without DHMO, there would be a lot of ships lying useless on the seafloor.
     There are substitutes for DHMO for many of these uses, though not all. Unfortunately, we can't really reduce our reliance on DHMO by simply adopting substitutes, because in those cases where the substitute is as good or better than DHMO, it's already been adopted. In the remaining cases, the substitute is even more dangerous than DHMO. Most importantly from an economic point of view, DHMO is cheap and plentiful, and the substitutes simply cannot compete. And let's not forget how many jobs are dependent, directly and indirectly, on DHMO.
     And those industries where there is no substitute at all are the most critical. Agriculture and fisheries are the most committed to using DHMO, and scientists have no idea of even where to look for a viable alternative. The cold, hard fact is that there are 7 billion people on this planet, and we have to feed them somehow. Without DHMO, even the most advanced modern agricultural and fishing techniques could never hope to feed more than a tiny fraction of that number.

     So let's be realistic. Yes, DHMO has its dangers, but the dangers of doing without this vitally important chemical are greater still. There's no such thing as perfect safety, and while maybe someday scientists will find a better solution, that day is not here yet. Until then, we're stuck with DHMO.

6 comments:

  1. Tom, your supposedly “unbiased” description of DHMO leaves out some important facts.

    Many of your readers may not know that you live in Edmonton, Canada, where DHMO is produced through the combustion of non-renewable hydrocarbons. Why did you not declare this obvious bias? Can you honestly say that you have no personal interest in DHMO? I think not!

    Perhaps you should be honest and tell your readers what life in this DHMO producing region is really like! The DHMO situation in this part of the world is so severe that a fine white dust of DHMO particles sometimes settles over the entire city—including schools, hospitals, and even children if their parents do not keep them indoors! At these times, many plants die or go dormant, and many types of adult animals are unable to survive.

    Earlier this year, a man was found dead, less than twenty miles from a major chemical refinery, his body covered in DHMO powder. Autopsy results confirmed that his blood contained DHMO crystals, which had caused his cell walls to rupture, destroying them from the inside.

    You talk about the use of DHMO in fisheries and transportation, but you neglect to mention that workers in exactly those industries are among those most likely to die from inhaling DHMO! Nor do you mention that the same hydrocarbon reactions that produce DHMO also produce large quantities of a known greenhouse gas.

    Do you think the public is too stupid to figure out the connection between DHMO and the proliferation of nuclear submarines during the cold war? Is it just a coincidence that big tobacco companies are suspected of spraying DHMO on tobacco crops to increase their profits? (I have seen photos of this actually happening.) I suppose you wouldn’t mind if this chemical was in your food. Let me tell you, some people have no choice about that. DHMO IS IN THE FOOD SUPPLY right now!

    Tell people the truth!

    --NIKOLAI

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  2. NIKOLAI,

    I think Tom mentioned his connection to Canada in the interest of honesty. He realizes that he might have some tendency to bias, but that doesn't mean he's incapable of accurately reporting the facts. It just means he has to be careful not to let his bias get the best of him.

    But in the end, whether a person is biased or not is entirely subordinate to the cogency of his arguments. If you are correct that DHMO is too dangerous for use, then you need to respond to his legitimate concerns. Namely, we overwhelming depend economically on DHMO---and this is not unique to Canada. While some nations may have a greater reliance than others, I think it's fair to say that a ban on DHMO (or even just public restrictions) would seriously undermine the economy of any nation, from the United States to Nigeria.

    It's no surprise that industries which are heavily dependent on DHMO are the ones where workers are most likely to fall victim to its dangers. This is true for any material, I should think. Frankly, I think it's clear that firms have an ethical obligation to continue using DHMO, given their role in service to the community. To do otherwise would deprive consumers of valuable wealth, and the workforce of legitimate jobs. These drawbacks cannot compete with whatever dangers might be avoided by giving up DHMO.

    Regards,
    Ben

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  3. Thank you both for your comments.

    Nikolai, while it's true that DHMO is a byproduct of fossil fuel combustion, that has nothing to do with my position that we should continue to USE DHMO. As a matter of fact, I'm very much opposed to our excessive reliance on fossil fuels, even though I do happen to live in Alberta. I think oil is something for which we SHOULD find substitutes, unlike DHMO.

    But since you brought up the oil industry, I should think you'd actually be grateful for the DHMO sequestration techniques they've been employing for years. Liquid DHMO is pumped into oil deposits to force the oil to the surface; the DHMO remains safely trapped underground.

    Ben, you answered before I could the point on fisheries and transportation workers being at greatest risk to DHMO exposure. I'd only add to that, if you were to ask the workers in these industries to choose between having a job with the risks of DHMO, and having no job at all, they'd unanimously opt to assume the risks. Indeed they have.

    Also, I'm glad you brought up the issue of other nations. It's one thing to ban DHMO here in North America, where we've already built our civilizations in part thanks to the use of DHMO. But it's completely unrealistic to expect developing nations to forgo the benefits of this cheap and plentiful resource, unless we're prepared to provide alternatives. And no one has yet even proposed a viable alternative. We should face it; we're stuck with DHMO for the foreseeable future. We should use it wisely and with care, but we simply cannot stop using it.

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  4. Forgot to mention: Nikolai spoke of the DHMO powder that has been observed settling on Edmonton. This is true; we do occasional receive dustings of crystalline DHMO sublimate. But there is no evidence that the DHMO involved is actually anthropogenic; in fact, the scientific consensus seems to be that this is a natural phenomenon when conditions in the lower atmosphere are right for it. Analysis of samples from the polar ice cap in Antarctica has provided evidence that deposition of atmospheric DHMO sublimate has been happening for thousands of years, long before humans started producing and using DHMO in industrial quantities.

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  5. Please provide evidence of this so-called 'scientific consensus' no doubt it's the same sort of consensus as there is on 'climate change'.

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    1. Certainly. The European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica (EPICA) has ice core samples from the Antarctic ice sheet that date back 800,000 years. As you may know, ice cores are a good way to get samples of the atmosphere preserved from when the snow (which is compressed into ice over time) originally fell.

      Well, it turns out that these ice core samples contain DHMO -- a LOT of it. In fact, the concentration of DHMO in prehistoric ice cores is just as high as the concentration found in modern samples. In fact, the DHMO concentration is more or less constant over time, regardless of the age of the sample, even though the concentration of other atmospheric gases (like CO2) may vary depending on age.

      There is also abundant other, less direct evidence of prehistoric DHMO concentrations, going back hundreds of millions of years. For example, there are certain kinds of sedimentary rocks that only form in the presence of DHMO, and which have been conclusively dated by radioisotopes in volcanic ash from eruptions above the sediments in question. So we know there's been DHMO in the ecosystem for a VERY long time.

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