Hoax Soaks Aliso Viejo
City officials fall for an Internet prank and draft a law to curb the risks of dihydrogen monoxide.
By William Wan
Times Staff Writer
March 13, 2004
In large quantities, dihydrogen monoxide can cause medical problems in humans and even destroy property. But in Aliso Viejo, it’s only causing red faces.
Officials of the south Orange County city were embarrassed to learn Friday that they had tripped over an Internet hoax about dihydrogen monoxide — commonly known as water — in an effort to be environmentally correct.
A proposed law that was scheduled to go before the City Council next week would have banned foam cups and containers at events requiring city permits.
A staff report cited environmental concerns, including the danger posed by dihydrogen monoxide, described as a chemical used in production of the plastic that can “threaten human health and safety.”
“It’s embarrassing,” said City Manager David J. Norman. “We had a paralegal who did bad research.”
The American Plastics Council has seized on the case as an example of how “junk science” can cause unfounded environmental fears.
“The plastics industry has always been a favorite target of environmentalists,” said spokesman Robert Krebs. “But we dream about instances like this when our opponents do something foolish.”
Regardless of the hoax, the Sierra Club argues that the ubiquitous white foam — made of polystyrene — can cause environmental harm.
It’s not biodegradable, said spokesman Eric Antebi, and, if ingested, can damage the digestive tracts of marine animals.
Aliso Viejo officials are not the only people who have fallen for the hoax.
Seven years ago, four teenagers in Pittsburgh were reprimanded by police for passing out fliers that caused a neighborhood-wide panic about dihydrogen monoxide.
Weeks later, the hoax took on a life of its own after a junior high school student in Eagle Rock, Idaho, used it in a science fair project to prove how gullible people can be.
The student conducted a survey of residents about the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide and found that 86% favored banning the substance — without knowing what it was.
The hoax inspired a small tongue-in-cheek movement on the Internet, with “national coalitions” formed to ban the substance. One of them, the Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division, maintains an extensive, if satirical, website detailing the harmful effects of the chemical — from tissue damage caused by prolonged exposure (wrinkly skin after soaking in the bath tub) to death by overdose (drowning).
Despite their embarrassment, officials in Aliso Viejo may still ban polystyrene.
“Our main concern is with the Aliso Creek watershed,” Norman said. “If you get Styrofoam into the water and it breaks apart, it’s virtually impossible to clean up.”
After some Internet research on Friday, the city manager decided to pull the item from the City Council’s agenda.
“We’re going to rework it — with better research — before it’s taken back to the council,” Norman said.