MTBE (Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether)

MTBE and Your Health

Exposure to the gasoline additive MTBE (Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether) can cause headaches; coughing; eye, nose and throat irritation; nausea; vomiting, dizziness and disorientation. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies MTBE as a "possible human carcinogen." In laboratory animals, it has caused cancer, and kidney, reproductive and nervous system problems.

The effects of MTBE depend upon the amount, length and frequency of exposure. People come into contact with MTBE through drinking contaminated water, as well as by inhaling MTBE vapors released from water while bathing or cooking.

How MTBE is Used

Since the late 1970s, MTBE has been used to enhance octane in gasoline. It promotes more complete burning of gasoline, reducing carbon monoxide and ozone levels. Localities that would not otherwise conform to the national air quality standards commonly use MTBE to meet the requirements of the Federal Clean Air Act.

Conventional gasoline has MTBE in amounts of usually less than 3% by volume, although some premium grades can have MTBE in amounts up to 9%. Reformulated gasoline (RFG), which was developed for use in localities which have air quality problems, contains 11% MTBE.

The Clean Air Act of 1990 requires the use of RFG in areas of the country with the worst ozone or smog problems. RFG must meet certain technical specifications, including a specific oxygen content. Ethanol and MTBE are the primary oxygenates used to meet the oxygen content requirement. These federal requirements are in place to protect public health and the environment from the harmful effects of exposure to elevated concentrations of ground level ozone. MTBE is used in approximately 84% of RFG supplies. In California, Governor Gray Davis issued an Executive Order requiring that MTBE be phased out of the state's gasoline supply by January 1, 2004.

MTBE Contamination of Drinking Water

Leaks from underground and above ground petroleum storage tanks and pipelines cause the contamination of drinking water with MTBE. Because of its small molecular size, resistance to decomposition and solubility in water, MTBE moves rapidly into ground water. It proceeds at a much faster rate than do other gasoline components such as benzene, toluene and xylene.

MTBE is more difficult to remove from water than the other gasoline components. Non–point sources, such as recreational watercraft, may cause MTBE contamination in shallow aquifers and surface waters. Industrial or auto emissions may also contribute to MTBE contamination of surface water.

Properties and Effects of MTBE

MTBE is a synthetic, volatile, colorless ether with an unpleasant turpentine–like taste and odor. These properties can make contaminated drinking water unacceptable to the public. Studies have analyzed the concentrations of MTBE in drinking water at which people can detect the odor or taste of the chemical. The results varied. Some who are sensitive to odors can detect very low concentrations of MTBE, and others do not taste or smell the chemical even at much higher concentrations. Moreover, the presence or absence of other natural or water treatment chemicals can mask or reveal MTBE taste or odor.

Testing for MTBE

You can obtain a list of local laboratories that can test your water for MTBE from your state drinking water agency. The analysis should be performed by a certified laboratory that uses EPA method 524.2 (gas chromatography/mass spectrometry). In most cases, it is difficult and expensive for individual homeowners to treat their own water. If MTBE is detected, contact your local water authority.

If you believe you have been exposed to MTBE and are experiencing health problems, please feel free to contact Brayton Purcell LLP today. We can refer you to a qualified physician for testing. We also will be able to help you pursue your right to compensation if your injuries were caused by exposure to MTBE.

Although our principal offices are on the West Coast, because of our expertise in toxic tort litigation, we have been associated in cases around the country to handle actions involving injury and disease secondary to toxic exposures. By working with local counsel in various states we can provide high quality representation in many locations.