Is MTBE in your drinking water?

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MTBE in our drinking water.
Concern or Crisis for U.S.A. Drinking Water?

Permission was granted to reprint this edited version of the March 2000 issue of
"The Food Supply Update" by Geri Guidetti, The Ark Institute.
Copyright 2000 by Geri Guidetti.

CBS's 60 Minutes journalist, Steve Kroff, said on national television on January 16th, "...Even the government now says that we're facing a national crisis if something isn't done to stop mtbe from leaking into our drinking water".

Since the late 1970s, M.T.B.E. was used in low concentrations in premium gasoline to increase octane ratings.

Gasoline reformulated with MTBE has been used in 19 states and 32 regions of the U.S. to meet Federal clean air standards. MTBE is used at the rate of about one gallon of pure mtbe for every ten gallons of reformulated gasoline used in the U.S., or 10 percent of every tank.

According to the State of California's March 1999 paper, "Public Health Goal For Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether (M.T.B.E.) in Drinking Water", MTBE was the eighteenth most produced chemical in the U.S. in 1994. In 1995, it was twelfth, and in 1997, mtbe was the second most produced chemical in the country! Californians use more than 13.7 billion gallons of gasoline a year, not counting diesel fuel. At 11 percent MTBE in California's gasoline mix, that's 1.5 billion gallons of pure MTBE bought, trucked over highways, stored in underground tanks, sold, and finally burned in vehicles in California alone each year! Nationally, it's about 4.5 billion gallons a year.

The first known impact of MTBE on our nation's water supply was in 1980 when a municipal water well in New Jersey was found contaminated with 96 ppb (parts per billion) of mtbe. Then, in 1996, the city of Santa Monica, California, discovered that 70 percent of its municipal wells were contaminated with it. They didn't even know what MTBE was when they found it. It wasn't on state or federal government's lists of potential water contaminants, but when they drew a circle containing these municipal wells on their city map, they discovered, within that circle, 20 gas stations with documented underground gas tank leaks. Soon the water began to smell of turpentine, the way most people describe the smell of water contaminated with MTBE. How much mtbe does it take to foul the smell of water? According to the 60-Minutes interview with Santa Monica water officials, a single cupful of MTBE in a 5 million gallon reservoir is sufficient to render the water undrinkable. The city had no choice but to scramble to close the majority of its wells and buy expensive Colorado River water at a cost of about $3 million a year.

Since Santa Monica closed its wells, the state of California has identified 10,000 MTBE-contaminated groundwater sites. What’s more, 49 states have found mtbe in groundwater, and 21 of these have had to shut down at least one of their wells due to MTBE. As of this writing, it has been found in 65 public drinking water supplies in New Jersey, in 100 public water supplies in Long Island, New York where it has leaked from over 400 gasoline storage tanks. It has been found in Maine, Albuquerque, Denver, Dallas, Atlanta, Hartford, Las Vegas and it has virtually shut down the tiny town of Glenville, nestled at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. In each case, in 49 states, m.t.b.e. enters groundwater from leaking, underground gas tanks, from gas spills, and/or from recreational water craft on lakes and rivers.

In 1997, MTBE was discovered in Lake Tahoe in California. South Lake Tahoe was forced to shut 12 wells, a third of its water supply. The city is suing 12 local gas stations, 12 major oil companies and several producers of mtbe hoping to have them share in the enormous costs of removing it from their drinking water. An attorney representing the city, Mr. Victor Sher, told 60-Minutes that we are seeing just the tip of the m.t.b.e. iceberg because it is used throughout much of the country and everywhere it is used it gets into the environment.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has known about leaking underground gas tanks and the subsequent contamination of wells, rivers, bays, etc., for many years. In fact, according to Bob Perciasepe, an assistant administrator at the agency, the EPA ordered underground gasoline storage tanks replaced or upgraded by 1998, but over 400,000 tanks are not covered by the order and many of the new tanks are already leaking! It would seem, from a 1987 EPA memo written well before the Clean Air Act of 1990 mandating reformulated gasoline, that this potential national crisis could have been prevented thirteen years ago. The memo states:

"Known cases of drinking water contamination have been reported in four states, affecting 20,000 people. It’s possible that this problem could rapidly mushroom due to leaking underground storage tanks. The problem of groundwater contamination will increase as the proportion of M.T.B.E. in gasoline increases."

EPA’s Perciasepe told 60-Minutes, "Any optimism anybody had that we could manage this potential problem has not come to fruition, and before this becomes a national crisis, before this gets worse, we need to change the way we make clean-burning gasoline."

Despite the warning sounded by that memo, the Clean Air Act of 1990 was passed three years later without studying the possible effects of drinking MTBE - contaminated water. Now thirteen years have passed, and there have still been no EPA or other federally sponsored studies on the effects of MTBE on humans. EPA’s Perciasepe confirmed that he was not aware of any study done on the health effects of mtbe in drinking water. He must not be aware of the ongoing studies done at the University of California, nor of those done in Italy five years ago. The Italian study showed that m.t.b.e. in high doses caused three cancers in laboratory animals: lymphoma, leukemia and testicular cancer. California’s M.T.B.E. web site features a paper entitled, "Public Health Goal for Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether (MTBE) in Drinking Water" in which they adopt 13 g/L or 13 ppb as the state’s public health goal or PHG.

The summary states, "The PHG is based on carcinogenic effects observed in experimental animals." They then go on to cite the findings of six studies conducted in 1992, 1995, 1997 and 1998, in which rats and mice, force fed and forced to breathe air containing mtbe, developed significant increases in tumors of the testes and liver, lymphoma, leukemia, and kidney tubules. Some animals developed cancers at multiple sites. The paper goes on to state, "We reviewed these studies and the reported criticisms carefully, and found the studies are consistent with other MTBE findings, and are of similar quality to studies on many other carcinogens...The results of all available studies indicate that M.T.B.E. is an animal carcinogen in two species, both sexes, and at multiple sites, and five of the six studies were positive."

In February of 1996, the Office of Science and Technology Policy released a report through the White House National Science and Technology Council (NSTC). Significantly, this report was peer reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences under guidance from the National Research Council (NRC). The report focused primarily on inhalation exposure to MTBE. A final report was released in 1997. The bottom line? The limited review in the NRC report concluded that the evidence supported mtbe as an animal carcinogen. The NSTC findings concluded, "....there is sufficient evidence that MTBE is an animal carcinogen....the weight of evidence supports regarding MTBE as having a carcinogenic hazard potential for humans."

In 1997, the EPA issued a "Drinking Water Advisory: Consumer Acceptability Advice and Health Effects Analysis on Methyl Tertiary-Butyl Ether ( M.T.B.E.)"

They recommend that no more than 20-40 g/L (20-40 ppb) of MTBE would assure aesthetic acceptability-- the taste and odor threshold. Because this level of contamination is much lower than levels that produced health effects seen in rodent studies up to that point, they reasoned, it would also protect consumers from potential health effects. EPA advisories, by the way are simply "guidance to communities" and "are not mandatory standards for action....and are not legally enforceable." For the sake of comparison of levels, in the city of Glennville, California, one well contained 20,000 ppb or one thousand times the EPA Advisory level!

It is now several months since the release of the EPA Blue Ribbon Panel Report on Oxygenates in Gasoline, and Congress has not moved to remove the oxygenate requirement or to aid states and communities in removing MTBE from their drinking water. Throughout this period of continuing regulatory inaction, mtbe is showing up in varying degrees nearly everywhere it is tested for, yet there is no federal requirement that MTBE even be tested for in the nation’s drinking water.In the meantime, individual states are moving ahead on their own to establish guidelines, standards or action levels. So far, they range from 10 ppb (Maryland) to 240 ppb (Michigan). Most are in the 20-70 ppb range.

Is MTBE in Your Water?

Do you know if your municipal water supply is contaminated with MTBE? Is your supplier even testing for it? If you don’t know, call your municipal water supplier and ask. Your state’s environmental protection agency is another resource for this information. Have any of your state’s major aquifers or lakes been tested? If you are on a well close to a populated area with gas stations, have you had your own well tested? Have other wells in your area been tested? If you find your water supply has mtbe it, can you determine the source? What can you or your community do about M.T.B.E. contamination?

Unfortunately, the chemical properties of MTBE make it very difficult to clean up. It moves further and faster through soil and is more water soluble than other gasoline components. It does not adhere well to soil particles. It does not break down easily. What’s more, it vaporizes into the air at 55.2 degrees Celsius or about 131 degrees F. When you consider that the average home hot water heater is set at 140 degrees F or higher, you can see that running hot water for a bath or hot shower, cooking, or using a washer or dishwasher can vaporize mtbe from the water, making it part of the air in our homes. This makes it available for inhalation as well as for drinking from cold water, and the simple fact is, no one yet knows the effects of inhalation or ingestion of m.t.b.e. in any quantity on adult humans, let alone young children and the human fetus. There is no practical technology yet available for removing MTBE from household air. Removing it from household water before it is vaporized would appear the only solution to MTBE vapor generated in the home. The odor of turpentine when taking a shower or boiling water has been reported in contaminated water areas. Unfortunately in lower concentrations you won't smell a thing.

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