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City Officials Fall for Internet Hoax

Times Staff Writer

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.”

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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.

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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.

After some Internet research on Friday, the Aliso Viejo’s city manager decided to pull the item from the City Council’s agenda.


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