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A surprisingly dangerous substance

For the past few years, I have been using the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for dihydrogen monoxide in class. MSDS are required of the manufacturer and outline the known hazards and first aid treatment for the chemical listed.

For the past few years, I have been using the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for dihydrogen monoxide in class. MSDS are required of the manufacturer and outline the known hazards and first aid treatment for the chemical listed. This sheet included such lines as:

"Potential Health Effects: The toxicological properties of this material have not been investigated. Use appropriate procedures to prevent opportunities for direct contact with the skin or eyes and to prevent inhalation."

And under "First Aid Measures":

"Eyes: Flush eyes with plenty of water for at least 15 minutes, occasionally lifting the upper and lower lids. Get medical aid immediately."


"Ingestion: If victim is conscious and alert, give 2 - 4 cups of milk or water. Get medical aid immediately."

There was even a note to physicians to "treat symptomatically and supportively".

Yes, these sheets warn us about this dangerous industrial pollutant, a product of combustion, known to cause human death and disease. The government wants to ensure that anyone coming in contact has appropriate and immediate treatment.

This, of course, could explain the aversion that many young children have to taking a bath. They know that their parents are trying to immerse them in an industrial waste product without the proper care and attention to the possible health consequences.

Dihydrogen monoxide is water. And although we don't usually think of water as an industrial by-product or a toxic waste material, it is. Indeed, water accounts for many more direct deaths than any other chemical compound.

The World Health Organization ranks it as the third leading cause of death due to unintentional injury, with an estimated 388,000 victims annually. Drowning - which is the most common form of death from water - is a major problem.

Drowning is not the only problem though. People can also overdose on water. There is also plenty of empirical evidence demonstrating if people consume water over long periods of time they will eventually die. Some will even die of cancer or heart disease or any number of other illnesses.

So, given that it is an industrial by-product (just look at any industrial chimney), its toxicity has not been investigated, and it is the direct and known causative agent in about 388,000 deaths per year worldwide, you would think that someone would ban it. Or, at the very least, get it removed from our drinking water.

Which is a pretty silly idea if you think about it.

Yes, this is an argument based in reductio ad absurdum. It is taking a literal interpretation of the issues surrounding water to an extreme to make a point. I have written much of this before.

However, we are once again entering the great debate about fluoride in our drinking water. Several proponents in the "anti-fluoride" campaign have written Letters to the Editor lately arguing that we shouldn't have fluoride in our drinking water. In about three months, the citizens of Prince George will need to decide whether or not to keep fluoridating our drinking water in a referendum.

Those that would like to have it removed frequently refer to fluoride as a "toxic industrial by-product" or some variation on those words. If that was truly their concern, then they should be up in arms about the water in our drinking water - not the fluoride. After all, water is a known poison.

But their reasons for classifying "fluoride" as an toxic industrial by-product is more likely to tie into the general fear of such products. While such fears are not unfounded, they miss the most important point. It is the "dose that makes the poison."

In the case of water, too much over a short period of time (hyponotremia) or too little (dehydration), inhalation (drowning) or even long term exposure (life) can all have dire consequences. It is always a question of dose.

Stating that fluoride is toxic is not wrong, but it is definitely misleading. The toxicity of fluoride salts also depends on the dose and often on the cation involved.

At low levels, fluoride is essential for our bodies and plays a role in our metabolic system. At much higher levels, it can be detrimental. But that level is well beyond the limits set by Health Canada or the Food Drug Administration in the United States.

It is this distinction between the mere presence of a compound and the amount required to cause a dose related response that seems to get lost in the discussion of many of the chemical compounds in our environment.

It is certainly critical to the consideration of whether or not we should have fluoridated drinking water.

There are many good reasons to fluoridate drinking water, not the least of which is that it saves money and lives. The fact that some industrial processes generate fluoride as a by-product is not a reason to remove it.

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