MTBE Gasoline Additive
Wars Raging In California
By Larry Gerber
Associated Press
DIAMOND BAR, Calif. (AP) - Californian Freda Kubas came to hear experts debate the perils of a gasoline additive, but she believes you don't have to be a chemist to know that the compound called MTBE can hurt you. "I cringe when I go to fill my car up with gas," she said.
Kubas blames seizures, gastrointestinal trouble and other health problems on MTBE, not to mention the virtual demise of Glenville, population about 130, near Bakersfield.
Health officials found that the compound had leaked from the only gas station, ending up in private water wells and being drunk by "nearly everybody in town" at the local cafe, she said. The station, the cafe and the wells were shut down in 1997.
California scientists, industry experts and people like Kubas on Feb. 19 opened the biggest debate to date on whether to stop use of smog-reducing MTBE, which is widely blamed for tainting drinking water.
MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether, is one of several oxygenating agents that may be put in gasoline for cleaner combustion; ethanol is another. Manufacturers favor MTBE, however, and federal authorities say it has helped cut air pollution drastically.
Leaked into drinking water, MTBE may also pose higher risks of cancer, respiratory irritation and other health problems, according to a study by University of California scientists. The clear compound smells like turpentine.
Even before the advent of unleaded gas in the 1980s, some refiners added MTBE in small doses. In urban California and other U.S. smog zones, the average blend jumped to about 11 percent MTBE when 1996 federal air control rules began requiring higher oxygen levels in gasoline.
The richer mixture means more MTBE is finding its way into lakes and ground water from leaky tanks and two-cycle boat engines, University of California experts told an audience of about 300 people at the first of two hearings sponsored by the state's Environmental Protection Agency. (The second was held in Sacramento on Feb. 23-24.)
"MTBE is an animal carcinogen, in our estimation," said Elinor Fanning of UCLA, an expert in environmental toxicology. The compound is "potentially relevant to humans," she said.
Chemical manufacturers disputed the conclusion, which could reverberate in other states. The MTBE debate has also stirred recently in New England and other areas with traffic congestion.
But California's is "certainly the first public debate of this magnitude," said Don H. Olsen of Huntsman Corp., an MTBE manufacturer based in Salt Lake City.
"There are several data gaps in the UC study," he said in an interview. The study, "seriously overestimates the cost and underestimates the health benefits of MTBE. ...
"Contrary to harming human health, MTBE has been shown to help human health," he said. "It decreases exposure to harmful air emissions."
Fanning and other University of California experts acknowledged that the compound hasn't been around long enough in volume to gather conclusive data. Since the study was circulated late last year, however, three tests on lab rats and mice have suggested that MTBE contributes to testicular tumors in males and kidney tumors in females, she said.
"Heed the suggestions of risk that are there," she urged the state health regulators.
The hearings and study, published by the University of California at Davis, were mandated in legislation sponsored by state Sen. Richard Mountjoy.
The state legislator supports a ban on MTBE, which goes into most of California's 16.9 million cars, 5.6 million trucks (counting pickups) and 400,000 motorcycles. The scientists recommend phasing out MTBE.
Gov. Gray Davis is to evaluate the testimony and the University of California report and to issue findings on any MTBE risks. If he determines there are dangers, he is to take steps to protect public health.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, meanwhile, has asked Congress to drop California from the federal order requiring additives such as MTBE.
California's MTBE debate broke out at Lake Tahoe, where the chemical drips into the water from two-stroke boat motors.
Several counties, including Lake County, have adopted resolutions demanding it be banned. The 27-member Regional Council of Rural Counties said there was an "urgent and convincing need" to ban MTBE.
Other towns report MTBE buildups in underground drinking water due to leaking pipelines or tanks at filling stations. Santa Monica has one of the heaviest reported concentrations of that sort.
Statewide, MTBE has been detected at 3,180 ground-water sites, said John E. Reuter of the University of California at Davis, a specialist in environmental sciences and a leading expert on MTBE. There may be up to 6,000 MTBE-tainted spots all told, with more expected to show up as years pass, he said.
At Donner Lake, in the Sierra Nevada, MTBE concentrations rose along with boat use in summer and dropped after Labor Day, a study found. The chemical doesn't break down when it gets underground, and it moves more quickly than other gas components, scientists said.
"Our town is a ghost town because of the MTBEs," Kubas said. "We had state-of-the-art tanks. They didn't help any."
"Gasoline doesn't belong in water, there's no doubt about that," Olsen said. "But the problem isn't the compound, it's the container." The real culprits are leaks and two-cycle engines, he said.