Serious Side Effects Found Among MTBE Exposure

Published: 08th September 2008
Views: N/A

Methyl tertiary-butyl ether, also known as MTBE, is a known component used to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide among gasoline, and has been in use since the late 1970s.

In 1990, with the passage of the Clean Air Act Amendments (specifically Section 211), the use of oxygenated gas was required in areas with excessive levels of CO air pollution. Unfortunately, these areas are characterized as urban and a large population of individuals were allegedly in contact with dangerous levels of MTBE. The positive aspect of the blend of gasoline and MTBE (which is highly flammable) is that it allows a much cleaner burn and less environmentally harmful emissions. Of the reformulated gasoline (RFG) mandated by this act, over 85% contain MTBE.

Even researchers at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have admitted that while MTBE appears as if it will not do harm to others, it may lead to serious health risks among victims exposed to the chemical.

Not only can individuals suffer health risks by inhaling MTBE, but the contamination of potable water stores, and thus ingestion, are other very real concerns. Water contamination can happen through the leakage from gasoline storage or transport units, most of which are located underground.

MTBE has a very high level of solubility and there have been many incidences of water contamination all over the country, especially in places of high population density (such as California and New England). Unfortunately, MTBE can be easily absorbed into water but is much more difficult to separate from water. On the other hand, in air, it quickly evaporates and produces a vapor which has a very distinct, unpleasant odor. Side effects of MTBE vapor inhalation may include the following.

The National Center for Environmental Health (a branch of the Centers for Disease Control) suggests that people who concerned about overexposure to MTBE through inhalation or water contamination contact a state drinking water agency immediately. Potential exposure is at times identified by the strong smell and may or may not be indicative of harmful levels. Most individuals who have come into contact with MTBE can detect the chemical in the bloodstream, urine as well as the breath for nearly two days after initial exposure.

While not considered as dangerous as Benzene (an element that MTBE replaces in gasoline) MTBE is a carcinogen at high enough exposure levels, as shown by laboratory experiments on animals conducted by the CDC. However, no governmental bodies have claimed to find sufficient evidence to recognize MTBE as a possible human carcinogen. Part of this reasoning is that it is eventually broken down and removed from the body, thus long term accumulation is not a risk.

Because most individuals are not exposed to MTBE unless it is with gasoline, scientists have had a difficult time establishing concrete evidence of the MTBE side effects.

Specifically, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) has still reserved a definitive judgment on the adverse health effects of MTBE. Many other studies have been conducted though and indicate that the following are symptoms found after contact with MTBE.
Symptoms from inhalation include:

* Headaches

* Cough

* Nose or throat burning

* Other respiratory irritation

* Lightheadedness

* Eye irritation

* Nausea

* Vomiting

* Dizziness, "spaciness" or disorientation

Possible health issues resulting from ingestion or dermal contact (i.e. drinking, swimming or showering) include:

* Gastrointestinal irritation

* Liver and kidney damage and possibly liver and kidney cancer

* Nervous system effects ranging from hyperactivity and
incoordination to convulsions and unconsciousness

* Risks to healthy fetal development

Obviously, at the expense of the health of the general public, requiring oxygenating additives in gasoline has been a mixed blessing. Indeed, before the federal government suggested the use of MTBE, and before gas and oil companies began adding it, more research should have been done as to its effects on the environment and human health.


Learn more about the dangers of MTBE at Also visit the LegalView homepage at to find information on other potential dangers such as the Zimmer Durom cup recall or the Cipro side effects causing tendonitis among patients.

Report this article Ask About This Article

More to Explore