The Facts About MTBE

MTBE – What is it?

Methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, is a gasoline additive to reduce lead and other emissions and enhance combustion. In 1979 it replaced lead in gas as an anti-knocking agent. Then, in compliance with the 1990 Clean Air Act, it was added in greater quantity to oxygenate gas. A volatile, colorless, liquid organic compound, it dissolves completely in gasoline – and water.

An unintended consequence has been its egress into our ground water (and atmosphere). Respecting only the physics of hydro-geology, MTBE knows no boundaries of race, age, gender or socio-economic status. The actual health risks are not fully understood (as no long term human studies exist), but the presence of MTBE causes moderate to severe taste and oder concerns in drinking water, leaving it non-potable. Because of groundwater contamination, MTBE has been banned in all 50 states.

Although they admittedly have insufficient data to support health risk claims, the EPA Drinking Water Advisory states 20ppb (parts/billion), or about one drop in 500 gallons, is acceptable for human consumption. Amounts above one drop may pose a human health risk.

Am I at Risk?

Yes – if MTBE is detected in your community. The greatest risk of MTBE exposure is to residents whose drinking water comes from a well. Because of its high solubility, when there is a persistent or catastrophic leak in the gasoline storage/delivery infrastructure, MTBE travels within an aquifer faster than other petroleum products. Without getting into the physics of ionic/non-ionic mixtures, suffice to say non-ionic gasoline does not dissolve into ionic groundwater. Therefore, the ionic MTBE “leaves” the gas and dissolves into the water.

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) “there are no data on the effects in people of drinking MTBE. Studies suggest…MTBE may cause gastrointestinal irritation, liver and kidney damage, and nervous system problems.” EPA has classified MTBE as a potential human carcinogen.

Additionally, the US Geological Survey (USGS) believes our atmosphere is responsible for volatile organic compounds (VOC) entering shallow groundwater. According to a 1998 study in southern New Jersey, scientists measured airborne levels of MTBE and, through computer simulation, were able to determine groundwater contamination is likely from atmospheric MTBE dissolving in rain.

  • Have you tested your well water within the last 12 months?
  • Do you live within of 5 miles of gasoline sales and/or storage facilities?
  • Are there any known groundwater contaminations in your area?
  • Have you experienced a change in taste, odor or appearance of your water?
  • Does your water taste, smell or appear differently than your friends’ and neighbors’ water?

Can MTBE Be Removed From My Drinking Water?

Absolutely! Activated coconut shell carbon is one of the best media to remove VOC’s like methyl tertiary butyl ether. Get more information on whole house water filters and other water filter systems now.