A Dangerous Substance

The following is a warning I often gave to my chemistry students.

Class, in this week’s activity we are going to be using a substance that, if inhaled, could kill you. I am being completely serious.

Hundreds of Canadians die each year by inhaling this particular compound and I don’t want it to happen in my lab. I am nearing retirement and my students have always handled this substance safely – I don’t want you to be the exception.

Having said that, I should tell you that I am not going to require you to use the fume-hood or to use protective masks. I know you are thinking, ‘Isn’t that taking too big of a risk?’ Perhaps so, but I am close enough to retirement that even if I am fired, I will still do OK.

Now I know what some of you are tempted to do. You feel compelled to alert your parents and have them call the principal, or ever the superintendent. I will not discourage from doing so.

But please DO NOT worry. I will guide you through this safely. This is an important experiment; in fact, for the next three labs we will be using this particular substance.

I will now demonstrate the safe handling of the compound. Please watch carefully.”

At this point I would then fill a beaker with water from a faucet and hold it up for all to see.

Here it is folks. It is called dihydrogen monoxide or, more commonly, water. It is interesting to note that you can safely drink it, but if you inhale it you could actually die.

There is a special name for dying by the inhalation of water. Does anyone know it?”

Student, “Drowning?”

Exactly, it is called drowning. So let’s all agree that we are going to handle this compound with the respect it deserves. I don’t want anyone to drown in my lab.”

I am proud to say that during my 32 year career, I never had a student drown during a chemistry lab – or a physics lab, for that matter.

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