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Drinking Water Contaminants
The gasoline additive, MTBE

Clean Air vs. Clean Water?

On January 16, 2000 CBS News' 60 minutes reported on the concerns about methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) contaminating the water in 49 states. MTBE is a gasoline additive which has been used since the late 1970s to help reduce automobile emissions. As 60 minutes reported, MTBE is highly water-soluble, slow to degrade, and, because of leaking underground petroleum storage tanks, has become a contaminant in 20 percent of the nation's urban wells. The city of Santa Monica, CA alone found 70 percent of its city wells contaminated, and has spend more then $3 million a year pumping in water from the Colorado River to replace those of the seven city wells it shut down due to MTBE contamination.  Although MTBE has been a controversial gasoline additive for a number of years, the 60 Minute report gave it instant national attention.

2013 Update: When I put this MTBE page up more than 10 years ago, the gasoline additive, MTBE, was very much in the news - a controversial substance that appeared to have some beneficial effects on air quality, but an understanding of the number of problems its use created, particularly with drinking water contamination, were growing. In the United States it is no longer added to gasoline, but contaminated water supplies remain.  According to one estimate, New Hampshire estimates that more than 40,000 drinking water wells in the state are contaminated with MTBE from the 1980s to 2007 when the state banned the additive.  In the years since this page was originally posted, most of the links I provided have disappeared.  Consequently most of the original text (and links) on this page have been removed, and a few informational links provided below for a historic context.

However, since MTBE can still be found in water supplies, and because it is not a contaminant you would want in your drinking water, it would be worth some study to see if you water might be contaminated with MTBE.

About MTBE - MTBE stands for the synthetic compound Methyl Tertiary-Butyl Ether and is a gasoline additive that has contaminated drinking water across the country. Made from methanol and a by-product of the oil refining process, it was added to gasoline in an attempt to make gas burn cleaner, but studies show it has had little effect on curbing air pollution.

EPA - Drinking Water Advisory: Consumer Acceptability Advice and Health Effects Analysis on Methyl Tertiary-Butyl Ether (MtBE)
Site contains: 
    Fact Sheet (PDF format)
    Full Text (PDF format)
    MtBE and your drinking water
    MtBE in gasoline
    MtBE and underground storage tanks

EPA - More Information