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.