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Sensationalism On The Daily

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During the past year, there was a great deal of discussion about fake news and social media.

Then, there is the quote, “I read about it on the internet so it has to be true.”

We are being constantly bombarded by social media, radio, television, advertising, and a host of other information sources.

This makes it difficult for us to sort out fact from fiction and to really judge if we should be concerned about a particular topic, product, or activity. Additionally, those that want to get you to believe a particular point of view, have to do something creative to get you to first read or listen to the story.

Just how do they do that?

Let me give you an example, of just how someone can sensationalize something very common.

Many of us in the science community have seen this humorous take on a common substance, dihydrogen monoxide.

Dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO) is a substance that can be found in your home, your work place, and your everyday environment.

The World Health Organization indicates it is the predominate liquid involved in an estimated 360,000 deaths in 2015. DHMO is colorless and odorless. It can be found as a vapor, liquid or solid.

When mixed with other chemicals, violent reactions can occur.

Depending upon the source, you may see listed as potential hazards associated with DHMO include: prolonged exposure the material in its solid form can cause tissue damage, exposure to its gaseous form can lead to severe burns, and it is involved in many chemical reactions. It is a product of combustion.

The list goes on, and on.

But, should you be concerned about this material?

It depends.

Dihydrogen monoxide is just another name for water.

Water is comprised of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, hence dihydrogen (2 hydrogens) monoxide (1 oxygen).

We all know that water has a number of potential hazards.

The 360,000 deaths were drownings with water being the primary liquid that caused respiratory impairment, i.e. the person is no longer able to breath.

If you are exposed to ice and cold for too long, you may experience frostbite, a condition that results in the damaging of tissues.

The vapor or gaseous form of water, steam, can cause severe burns.

Water is one product of combustion, the other is carbon dioxide, i.e. the bubbles in your soda.

Water is in the air. It is a major chemical component of your body, and while it can vary from person to person and day to day, water comprises about 70 percent of the body.

NASA indicates that about 70 percent of the Earth is covered in water. And, the water cycle is an essential part of what keeps our planet habitable. So, while water may have its hazards, it is also essential for life.

But, the same facts we know about water can be portrayed as something “scary” just by giving it an unfamiliar name or putting the information in a scientific or unfamiliar context.

There are number of common everyday things that individuals can appear to twist or color how they are perceived just by using an alternative name or by failing to mention that the substance is commonly present in your surroundings. Additionally, some substances like vitamins and minerals are essential in particular quantities, but can be very harmful if present in too high of amounts, i.e. the “dose makes the poison.”

Thus, even when the information is factual, the context and how the information is presented can make a big difference in how the information is perceived.

And, one has to be careful from the opposite perspective as well.

For example, natural doesn’t necessarily mean harmless or safe. Hemlock is natural but it is also poisonous.

Unfortunately, this means that we each have to individually evaluate the information that is being presented, and may have to do a bit of investigation to determine the exact nature of the potential concern. We can’t just depend upon what we read or hear.

Editor’s note: This is a series of science-related articles by author Frankie Wood-Black, Ph.D., REM, MBA, to appear in Mid-Week section of the Ponca City News. The author currently runs her own environmental consulting firm based in Ponca City, Sophic Pursuits, Inc., and also serves as a Physics Instructor and the Director for Process Technology at Northern Oklahoma College.

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