- 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
- 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,"
- 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,
- "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
- 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
- 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
- "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.