Water, Walt and What You Breathe

The Rundown on MTBE, Mickey and the Morning Commute

How much air pollution gets inside my car when I’m driving in traffic?

—Ben Au, Washington, DC

When driving in traffic, you breathe gases such as nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons at concentrations 10 times above normal ambient urban levels, according to a 1998 study conducted by California’s Air Resources Board (ARB).

Is this bad for your health? “Generally, we think that any elevated level [of noxious gases] is potentially harmful,” says an ARB spokesman, Jerry Martin. The carmakers say you shouldn’t worry. According to the American Automobile Manufacturers Association (which has now been merged into the international Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers), today’s automobiles are 90 to 96 percent less polluting than their counterparts 35 years ago, and “a 1996 model car can be driven about 60 miles and still give off less smog-forming emissions than a 1965 model parked in the driveway all day with its engine off.” Nevertheless, automobile tailpipes still produce a quarter of the carbon dioxide generated annually in the U.S.

Concerned commuters with an extra $30,000 to spare might consider buying a BMW that can automatically shut off the outside air when it detects the presence of dangerous gases. However, keep in mind that the ARB study also found that vehicles’ air recirculation settings had little effect on in-cabin pollutant levels. The snazzy new technology, which BMW says will set you above the choking hordes, could have only marginal practical effect.

So, short of lobbying Congress, what’s the best way to reduce your daily ration of noxious gases on the way to work? Try using carpool lanes, where inducted pollutant concentrations are 30 to 60 percent lower than in other lanes. Or try getting some exercise and walk to your office. ARB says you’ll breathe half the level of fumes you’d get in your car.


Air Resources Board
PO Box 2815
2020 L Street
Sacramento, CA 95812
Tel. (916) 322-2990

What is the Walt Disney Company’s environmental track record?

—Jacob Harold, Los Angeles, CA

Although Walt Disney World itself is relatively clean, safe and efficient, the surrounding proliferation of discount t-shirt kiosks, cheap motels and spinoff parks like Bargain World and Alligatorland has created a nightmare of urban sprawl. Thus, not surprisingly, the announcement in 1993 of plans for Disney’s America—a $650 million history-themed park in Haymarket, Virginia—evoked fierce opposition from locals who feared the 150-acre development would inundate the placid region with Washington D.C. daytrippers and efface the region’s real historical heritage of carefully preserved Civil War battlefields. Disney abandoned plans for U.S. expansion in 1994, and is now looking to Asia. The company’s first beachhead is a planned $3.55 billion park on Hong Kong’s Lantau Island. A local Friends of the Earth chapter may seek a judicial review of the Chinese project if Disney does not file a government-required environmental impact statement.

Disney’s treatment of ecosystems has improved somewhat since 1990, when the Environmental Protection Agency slapped the company with a $550,000 fine for sewage violations and improper toxic waste storage in Orlando. In 1988, Disney was charged with illegally killing black buzzards that were roosting at Disney World. Since then, Disney has cleaned up its image by donating land to The Nature Conservancy; conducting environmental education programs for employees and schoolchildren; using zero-emission battery pickups for hauling duty; and converting to energy-efficient lighting at the theme parks. A green investing certification firm, Innovest, ranks Disney as the nation’s most environmentally-proactive leisure and tourism company. And environmental themes are stressed in Disney movies like A Civil Action and The Lion King.


515 Madison Avenue, 41st floor
New York, NY 10022
Tel. (212) 421-2000

Could the gasoline oxygenator MTBE cause a problem for fish if it leaks into streams?

—Patricia Love, Talent, OR

Since the 1970s, oil companies have used billions of pounds of methyl tertiary butly ether (MTBE) as an octane booster and replacement for lead in gasoline. The EPA classifies MTBE as a possible human carcinogen, and exposure occurs through exhaust or gasoline-contaminated air and water.

Research indicates that MTBE in water impacts humans more than it does fish and other aquatic life: We can taste it at levels as low as 15 parts per billion (ppb), while the lowest concentration at which scientists have observed adverse effects in fish is 300,000 ppb.

“The levels of MTBE contamination in water that are raising a concern [over human heath] are lower than those that can produce acute toxicity in aquatic organisms,” said David Hinton, a professor of veterinary medicine at UC Davis.

The EPA does not regulate MTBE concentrations in water, but recommends a maximum of 70 ppb as a noncarcinogenic level. Concentrations of MTBE are below 10 ppb in most drinking water systems, but have been measured at up to 500 ppb in some locations.


Office of Environmental Hazard Assessment
301 Capitol Mall, Room 205
Sacramento, CA 95814
Tel. (916) 324-7572