Methyl tertiary butyl ether or MTBE is a clear liquid that’s added to gasoline to make that fuel burn more efficiently. It was adopted over 40 years ago as a way to reduce the levels of smog and air pollution caused by cars. This additive was effective in reducing the air pollution levels, but it also found its way into our waterways. This problem persists to the present day, and our drinking water supply can still be affected. Let’s take a closer look at MTBE, examine how it can affect our water and look at some ways to deal with it.

The Scale of the MTBE Problem

Many states banned MTBE altogether when the water pollution hazard was understood. Despite this, MTBE has been found in almost every state across the country, and it has leaked into rock and soil and then our groundwater. MTBE can find its way into our environment in a number of different ways, such as car refueling spills, fuel spills and leaks on boats and underground gasoline storage tanks leaks. The last reason is very common at gas stations all over the country. MTBE has specific characteristics that make it very dangerous as a pollutant; it’s highly soluble in water, and it degrades slowly. So, when MTBE is leaked into rock, soil or water, it can quickly be absorbed into and carried away through the water system.

MTBE Health Related Problems

When water is contaminated with MTBE, it will take on a fruity and turpentine like chemical taste. This can be detected even if there are only 40 ppb in the water supply. If high levels of MTBE are ingested there are a number of possible health risks, such as nerve damage, stomach irritation, liver, and kidney damage, and it may be a carcinogen. Testing in a laboratory showed that MTBE inhaled by mice and rats caused an increase in the incidence of liver and kidney cancer. Despite this, the American Cancer Society does not recognize MTBE to be a cancer risk for humans. Also, the EPA has not established a set of formal health standards for MTBE exposure. It’s important to note that extremely high levels of MTBE would need to be ingested to suffer from the health risks mentioned earlier.

What Can You Do About MTBE in Your Water Supply?

These days MTBE is only used as a gasoline additive in rare cases, and it has mostly been replaced by ethanol. Some states have banned MTBE use entirely, and the chances of MTBE contamination are reduced in certain areas.

Now for the bad news, MTBE is hard to remove from water, and it can easily travel to groundwater supplies. Luckily, there are home water treatment systems available that will work to remove MTBE contamination. Experts recommend that a two-step process is used; the first step strips away the bulk of the MTBE contamination and the second step filters, refines and polishes the water.

Activated carbon has an extremely large surface area compared to its size making it an excellent filter medium. It can remove a significant amount of MTBE on a single pass and when it has filtered to its maximum capacity the filter is easy to replace. If you have an MTBE problem contact your local water treatment specialist and they will be able to advise you on a filtration system that will suit your needs.

By EcoWater Systems.
EcoWater Systems of Nebraska is the largest water treatment company in the state and is a member of Water Quality Association.