Cynthia A. Janak
June 28, 2006
The "crude" truth toxin cover-up
By Cynthia A. Janak

Our gasoline is oxygenated by MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether) since 1979 at low levels. MTBE is a chemical compound manufactured by the chemical reaction of methanol and isobutylene. MTBE is used as an octane enhancer as a replacement for lead. What this does is it helps prevent the engine from "knocking."

In 1990, our Legislators passed the Clean Air Act Amendments. This rose the oxygenate requirements of gasoline causing MTBE to be used at higher concentrations. Why our Legislators passed the Clean Air Act was because many areas in the United States had unhealthy levels of air pollution.

I want you to understand one thing here; The Clean Air Act did not require, specifically, the use of MTBE's in the gasoline. The oil refiners chose to use MTBE because it was cheaper and mixed well with the gasoline. They could have chosen ethanol but they did not. The bottom line is the cost of adding ethanol to the gasoline was more than MTBE. That was the consensus at the time. Since then studies have proved that ethanol provides a net energy gain of about 77%. The U. S. Department of Agriculture did the most recent study.

The good thing about MTBE, since 1995 the air quality has improved for American's. Since the second phase of the reformulated gasoline (RFG) which began January, 2000, the EPA estimates that:

"smog-forming pollutants are being reduced annually by at least 105 thousand tons, and toxics by at least 24 thousand tons. Refiners are required to reduce the emissions of volatile organic compounds, toxics, and nitrogen oxides by 27, 22, and 7 percent, respectively, compared to the conventional gasoline they produced in 1990."

Conservatively speaking, this is good for not only Americans but for the population of the world. We have decreased the amount of smog producing pollutants in our atmosphere.

I do have a good thing to say about the oil companies. They are changing their gasoline away from using MTBE to using alternative oxygenates like ethanol voluntarily. Our Legislators did not have to pass any requirement to make them reformulate the gasoline.

Now, think a minute, the oil companies are doing something voluntarily and it is going to cost them more. Something is wrong with this picture. We have seen a retirement package of $400 million go to an executive.

My curiosity got the better of me here. I had to research MTBE and ethanol. What I found was shocking but not unexpected, sorry to say. First, I am going to tell you about MTBE and its side effects.

"The majority of the human health-related research conducted to date on MTBE has focused on effects associated with the inhalation of the chemical. When research animals inhaled high concentrations of MTBE, some developed cancers or experienced other non-cancerous health effects. To date, independent expert review groups who have assessed MTBE inhalation health risks (e.g., "Interagency Assessment of Oxygenated Fuels") have not concluded that the use of MTBE-oxygenated gasoline poses an imminent threat to public health. However, researchers have limited data about what the health effects may be if a person swallows (ingests) MTBE. EPA's Office of Water has concluded that available data are not adequate to estimate potential health risks of MTBE at low exposure levels in drinking water but that the data support the conclusion that MTBE is a potential human carcinogen at high doses. Recent work by EPA and other researchers is expected to help determine more precisely the potential for health effects from MTBE in drinking water."

"EPA reviewed available health effects information on MTBE in its 1997 Drinking Water Advisory guidance and decided that there was insufficient information available to allow EPA to establish quantitative estimates for health risks and as such would not set health advisory limits. The drinking water advisory document indicates that there is little likelihood that MTBE in drinking water will cause adverse health effects at concentrations between 20 and 40 ppb or below"

On the EPA website, they state that they do not have any kind of national drinking water standard in regards to MTBE. They did issue a secondary drinking water standard. This standard is based on taste and odor. How ludicrous is that!

"In December 1997, EPA issued a Drinking Water Advisory that states concentrations of MTBE in the range of 20 to 40 ppb of water or below will probably not cause unpleasant taste and odor for most people, recognizing that human sensitivity to taste and odor varies widely."

"It is possible your water would taste and/or smell like turpentine if MTBE is present at levels around or above 20-40 ppb (some people may detect it at even lower levels)."

"Safe Drinking Water Hotline (800-426-4791) or go to to get the phone number for the office in your state"

Why do we have to taste it before anyone knows that it is there? In addition, if we taste it then we know it is at levels that are unsafe for consumption. I will not look at the water coming out of my faucet the same again.

When I read all of this, I had to look further mainly because the data referenced was from 1997. I wanted to know about the biodegeneration of MTBE. I wanted to know how long this stuff stayed in our water supply. This is what they said.

"What happens when MTBE gets into the environment?

Because MTBE dissolves easily in water and does not "cling" to soil very well, it migrates faster and farther in the ground than other gasoline components, thus making it more likely to contaminate public water systems and private drinking water wells. MTBE does not degrade (breakdown) easily and is difficult and costly to remove from ground water.

How long will MTBE remain in water?

MTBE is generally more resistant to natural biodegradation than other gasoline components. Some monitoring wells have shown little overall reduction in MTBE concentration over several years which suggests that MTBE is relatively persistent in ground water. In contrast, studies of surface water (lakes and reservoirs have shown that MTBE volatilizes (evaporates) relatively quickly."

At this point, I had enough. For whatever reason, the EPA is allowing a non-biodegradable substance into our drinking water. The only other thing I was able to find out on their web site that research is being conducted. I would think that since 1997 there would be results of some sort from their studies. MTBE is toxic. I have not found anything definitive.

My research into MTBE brought me to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. It gave me some valuable information that I am going to pass on to you.

How can methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) affect my health?

Breathing small amounts of MTBE for short periods may cause nose and throat irritation. Some people exposed to MTBE while pumping gasoline, driving their cars, or working in gas stations have reported having headaches, nausea, dizziness, and mental confusion. However, the actual levels of exposure in these cases are unknown. In addition, these symptoms may have been caused by exposure to other chemicals.

There are no data on the effects in people of drinking MTBE. Studies with rats and mice suggest that drinking MTBE may cause gastrointestinal irritation, liver and kidney damage, and nervous system effects.

How likely is methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) to cause cancer?

There is no evidence that MTBE causes cancer in humans. One study with rats found that breathing high levels of MTBE for long periods may cause kidney cancer. Another study with mice found that breathing high levels of MTBE for long periods may cause liver cancer.

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), and the EPA have not classified MTBE as to its carcinogenicity.

How might I be exposed to methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE)?

Touching the skin or breathing contaminated air while pumping gasoline.

Breathing exhaust fumes while driving a car.

Breathing air near highways or in cities.

Drinking, swimming, or showering in water that has been contaminated with MTBE.

Receiving MTBE treatment for gallstones.

If you want to know more about the effects of MTBE please go to the web site.

I have underlined all the 'possible' side effects. What I noticed is that the word 'may' is used in conjunction with the side effects.

What is this? "May cause" kidney cancer or liver cancer. Why do they not know for sure? If MTBE has the potential to kill citizens, why have they not done the studies to find out definitively? I have my opinion but I will save that to the end.

We are all aware of the effects that cigarette smoking has on the lungs. There is a warning on the cigarette packs that used to say that cigarette smoke may be hazardous to your health. Now the pack states that "Surgeon General's Warning: Cigarette Smoke Contains Carbon Monoxide."

Our government officials keep raising the taxes imposed on cigarettes in order to get more people to quit smoking, where are they on this issue. I had to find that out.

68 neighborhood water wells affected by MTBE, some highly tainted, in Harford County, Maryland

Tests reveal extremely high levels of a potentially cancer-causing chemical in the ground water up to 26,000 parts per billion at an Exxon gas station in the Harford County community of Upper Crossroads, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment, which is calling the incident one of the largest well contamination problems ever recorded in the state. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends 20 parts per billion as safe for the presence of the gasoline additive.

State, county and Exxon officials have known about the MTBE problem since at least 1998. Baltimore Sun_ 6/22/04

I love the politically correct speech..potentially cancer-causing chemical. I found many articles on this topic but this one was the best. The reason is that the article states that the state, county and Exxon officials knew about MTBE since 1998. That was six years previous to when this article was written. What kind of irresponsible actions inflicted on the American citizen is this?

The following web site has a map of the states that have legislation in place or pending against the use of MTBE in gasoline. Check it out.

I love the top paragraph on this site.

"Currently, 25 states across the U.S. have banned the oxygenate methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), a gasoline additive that has now been found to contaminate ground water supplies. Ethanol is now taking the place of MTBE in these areas because it is a clean, safe, and renewable alternative fuel that increases octane and reduces harmful emissions."

I thought you would enjoy reading this little tidbit about ethanol from

Ethanol's impact on the price of gasoline

  • Ethanol does not drive up the price of gasoline. In fact, the addition of ethanol to American fuel has helped to keep prices down during times of tight supply.

  • A 10% blend of ethanol receives a federal tax credit of 5.1 cents per gallon, and these savings can be passed along to consumers at the pump an instant tax credit for buying an American-made product.

  • The U.S. ethanol industry provides nearly 5 billion gallons of fuel to our nation's supply each year. Especially when gasoline refining capacity is tight as it is today, a larger fuel supply means less price volatility.

  • Ethanol is adding considerably to the fuel supply in the U.S. Gasoline refining capacity is stretched to the max, and no new refineries have been built in 30 years. Contrast that with the U.S. ethanol industry which is building production facilities at nearly two per month.

  • Removing ethanol from our nation's supply would mean we'd immediately need to find 3% more fuel that would cause dramatic spikes in fuel prices.

  • Read more in "Over a Barrel: Why aren't oil companies using ethanol to lower prices?" What I believe is going on here is that 'Big Oil' is a gigantic lobby group and they influence our Legislators to cater to what they want. I also think that they are so huge that they have gotten to our EPA so they will not wave the red flag to this dangerous toxic substance.

My opinion is that the oil companies are afraid of having lawsuits filed just like the ones that the tobacco companies had to endure over the years. The only difference between the two is that smoking is a choice. We do not have a choice in regards to our use of gasoline.

In closing, here is an excerpt from an article that I found.

Well Closures

The Plainview Water District is suing the Exxon Mobil Corp. for a 1997 MTBE spill located just 450 feet away from the Nassau County community's public water well. While the company agreed to clean up the spill, six years later the contamination has still not been completely remediated. Additionally, neither the State Department of Environmental Conservation nor the oil company alerted local officials to the spill. Granger learned about it by chance, seeing work at the site in 2000.

That's typical, according to Walter Hang of the environmental research firm Toxics Targeting, which collects data on environmental spills. New York State has identified 1970 MTBE spill sites, 430 of them on Long Island. According to Granger's Senate testimony, California has 10,000 MTBE-contaminated sites, and 21 states have reported well closures due to MTBE groundwater contamination.

MTBE gets into groundwater easily, usually through leaking underground fuel tanks. Getting it out is very difficult. Water-soluble, the compound dissolves in groundwater and migrates in the direction of the prevailing flow. Once in the aquifer, MTBE does not biodegrade, and according to Granger's testimony "has a propensity to sink." The only upside to MTBE contamination is that the toxic has a strong odor, making well-water contamination noticeable to home owners.

But once it's there, MTBE is difficult to remove by traditional methods, and therefore remediation is very expensive. In June 2001 the New York Times reported that Exxon removed over 1000 tons of affected soil at the Plainview site, but the pollution had seeped down through a clay barrier and into the groundwater 75 to 80 feet below the surface.

© Cynthia A. Janak


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Cynthia A. Janak

Cynthia Janak is a freelance journalist, mother of three, foster mother of one, grandmother of five, business owner, Chamber of Commerce member... (more)


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