What Price, MtBE?

A "Green" Gas Additive May be Causing More Problems Than It’s Solving

When Freda and Jim Kubas bought their Glenville, California home, they thought they would be spending the rest of their lives there. In 1993, they began using their private well and noticed a turpentine-like odor and peculiar taste, so they installed a $4,000-water filter. “We thought it was just minerals,” Freda recalls.

But soon after they began using their well, both Kubases began to develop health problems. In addition to the flu-like symptoms they shared, in 1995 Freda began having seizures, which—combined with the sudden recurrence of Jim’s childhood asthma—had the couple baffled. It was not until 1997, nearly four years after they began using their well, that the Kubases had their water tested and discovered that it contained 20,000 parts per billion (ppb) of methyl tertiary butyl ether (MtBE), a gasoline ingredient made mostly from natural gas.

Because of a leaking underground gasoline storage tank, the Kubas’ well contains 1,000 times more MtBE than what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers safe, according to an advisory issued by the agency in 1997.

When blended with gasoline, MtBE adds oxygen to it, supposedly improving air quality by decreasing toxic emissions. In areas of the country where the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for carbon monoxide and ozone are routinely exceeded, the Clean Air Act requires that gasoline be oxygenated to improve air quality.

The Kubas’ illnesses, which they and their physician attribute to MtBE exposure, are examples of the more severe reactions to MtBE. But thousands of people across the country have complained of dizziness, rashes, swelling, respiratory problems and diarrhea when exposed to MtBE-gasoline fumes and MtBE-tainted water. Studies have indicated that the additive is carcinogenic to laboratory animals. And nationwide, the list is growing of water supplies contaminated with MtBE from surface spills, storm water runoff, chemical precipitation and leaking underground tanks.

MtBE was originally added to gasoline in the late 1970s as an octane booster. But a new market emerged for MtBE when the Clean Air Act was amended in 1990. Following an aggressive campaign by ethanol and MtBE producers, the use of oxygenated, or reformulated gasoline became a requirement where carbon monoxide and ozone pollution was a problem (some 35 northern cities, beginning in 1992). Today, MtBE is used in most reformulated gas, and accounts for about one-third of the gasoline used nationwide. The EPA claims that reformulated gasoline decreases hydrocarbon emissions by 15 percent. “It has been helping to reduce emissions,” says Christine Hawk of the EPA’s fuels and energy division in Washington, D.C.

But a study conducted by the Auto/Oil Air Quality Improvement Research Program, an organization backed by three American auto companies and 14 petroleum companies, concluded that using MtBE did not significantly reduce ozone, and that oxygenated gasoline did not change the emissions of vehicles built after 1992. An earlier study by the same group also found that MtBE actually increased emissions by about five percent of nitrogen oxides (an ozone layer attacker).

In fact, the negative health effects of MtBE have many people alarmed. “There is no question that MtBE is a probable human carcinogen,” says Myron Mehlman, an adjunct professor of medicine at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York and an MtBE expert. Mehlman cites published research on rats and mice in which inhaled and ingested MtBE has caused cancers of the kidney, liver and testes, as well as lymphomas and leukemias. North Carolina banned MtBE after classifying it as a probable human carcinogen.

But it’s the immediate and short-term reactions to MtBE that has people protesting its use. When MtBE was introduced in Alaska in 1992, so many people complained of allergic-type reactions, dizziness and respiratory problems that the governor banned it after three months. And hundreds of people in New Jersey, New York, Maine, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Arizona, Montana, Massachusetts and California have experienced similar symptoms.

“There was definitely inadequate testing for MtBE’s toxicity before it was introduced,” says Rick Hillier of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union in Lakewood, Colorado. Union surveys of employees who work around MtBE uncovered evidence of frequent headaches, nausea and burning in the nose and throat.
The only research done on MtBE before it was pumped into the gas supply was conducted by industry, and critics like Mehlman call it “junk science.” Even the EPA admits the trials were flawed. “We didn’t have the health testing requirements that we do now when MtBE started being used as an octane enhancer,” explains Hawk.

More studies were conducted on MtBE by the EPA after the chemical started being used as an oxygenate, according to J. Michael Davis, a health scientist in EPA’s office of research and development in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. But assessments so far have been based only on inhalation data and have not addressed MtBE in drinking water, he adds.

In California, where at least 27 lakes and reservoirs have been contaminated with MtBE, exposure through water is of the greatest concern. “It’s one thing to want clean air, but you don’t trade clean air for poisoned water,” says Richard Mountjoy, a California state senator. MtBE is very soluble and concentrates in groundwater; the search continues for a cost-effective way to filter or neutralize it. MtBE has been discovered in ground water in 19 states.
Mountjoy says he was pleased last October, when the legislature passed a bill requiring the University of California to study MtBE, but he’s hoping for national action. The House and Senate are considering legislation that would allow California to meet air-quality requirements without oxygenated gasoline.

Even the oil industry is backing away from MtBE. “While it’s not a crisis, we can see the problems with MtBE increasing and creating quite a liability for us and suppliers of drinking water as well,” says Duane Bordvick of Tosco, one of California’s largest oil refiners. MtBE is the only legal option for oxygenated gasoline in California, but Tosco and Chevron have both asked the California Air Resources Board to allow them to stop using MtBE.

Freda and Jim Kubas must choose to either live in their house with undrinkable water, or abandon it. Meanwhile, the town of Glenville is suing the state on behalf of the Kubases and other residents with contaminated water.