SACRAMENTO — The California Air Resources Board ignored warnings from the Environmental Protection Agency that gasoline additive MTBE might be carcinogenic before requiring it in every gas tank in the state.
Since the passage of the state mandate last summer, MTBE has been used across California as an additive in gasoline to oxygenate the fuel for “cleaner burning.” Yet, there is no proof the additive, which is now being used in many other states, results in reduced air-pollution levels.
“At the time that the regulation was passed, I think that we were aware that it might be carcinogenic and that it could have some other health effects,” recalled Dr. Andrew Wortman, the engineer-scientist of the California Air Resources Board from 1983 until January of 1994. He later added, however, that the board never thought that levels of MTBE in the environment would ever reach a point that would adversely affect people’s health. Wortman also stated that he thought that the board knew even before MTBE usage became mandatory in the state that the chemical wasn’t healthy for people.
According to Wortman, the main reason that the California Air Resources Board passed the resolution was because of political pressure.
“This thing was rigged from the first time that it was mentioned,” he said. “The chair kept banging on me that the governor insisted on passing it.”
The chairwoman at the time was Jananne Sharpless. According to Wortman, Sharpless, one of the few people on the board reappointed by Gov. Pete Wilson, was given a position on the Energy Commission by the governor as an award for her efforts in getting the MTBE resolution passed.
To help get the resolution passed, the Air Resources Board picked favorable data supporting MTBE and threw out the rest, said Wortman.
“The Air Resources Board staff selectively threw out all the data they didn’t like,” Wortman said.
One of the main ingredients of MTBE, isobutylene, is a by-product of refined crude oil. Referring to isobutylene, Dr. Myron Mehlman, an adjunct professor of public health at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and editor of Toxicology and Industrial Health, said the stuff wasn’t worth much by itself but when used to make MTBE, its value increased.
“There is a big economic advantage in using isobutylene to make MTBE,” Mehlman said.
The economic advantage, according to Wortman, is that the chemical is cheap because it is a by-product of refined oil. Thus, processing it into MTBE would also be cheap, saving the oil companies a significant amount of money.
Wortman pointed out there was one problem with the plan to save money by using isobutylene to make MTBE. It would cost oil companies an estimated $5 billion to redesign refineries for the production, and all but one of the oil companies in California were, at first, against its use.
The one company in favor of the plan was Atlantic Richfield Company. It didn’t cost ARCO anything because the company already had the facilities to make MTBE. In fact, it was ARCO which gave the California Air Resources Board its reformulated gas as a surrogate for testing emissions.
“ARCO was lying on their side that it was such a wonderful thing and that it would finally clean up the air,” Wortman said. “They didn’t have a shred of true scientific evidence, though. They just had a cheaper way of making gasoline than anybody else.”
In Sacramento, many legislators are concerned about the lack of research done concerning MTBE’s effects on the environment and people. Some officials, including Sen. Richard Mountjoy, R-Arcadia, are even attempting to rid the state of MTBE. In Senate Bill 521, which he and others brought to the floor of the state Senate Feb. 24, he asked that MTBE be banned from the state of California.
Since the bill’s introduction, however, it has been amended beyond Mountjoy’s recognition. Among other things, the revised legislation would require a lengthy study of MTBE and postpone indefinitely any ban on the chemical. The amended bill would also take away the responsibility of cleaning up the chemical from those who produced it and hand it over to the taxpayers.
Mountjoy wants an immediate ban of the chemical in California and wants the oil industry to take responsibility for cleaning up the state.
Various doctors from around the nation, oil companies, water districts, and utility districts have researched MTBE and looked into the dangers which Mountjoy and others are concerned about. Here is what they found.
According to a state Air Resources Board official, the reformulated gas cut smog-forming emissions by 14 percent and cut benzene emissions by 50 percent, which, therefore, cut gasoline’s cancer risk by 30 percent.
However, in a letter to Sen. Mountjoy, Dr. Michael Lambert of San Jose State University said, “MTBE actually causes a slight increase in nitrogen oxide, which is the major component of smog. … This clearly demonstrates that MTBE is causing significantly more harm than good.”
Besides releasing more nitrogen oxide into the air, MTBE emissions release other dangerous chemicals into the air. In his letter to Mountjoy, Lambert pointed out, “MTBE significantly increases two of three known hazardous organic compounds, which are carcinogenic and known to cause and exacerbate respiratory illnesses.”
These organic compounds are known as aldehydes and ketones. One of the better known aldehydes which MTBE emissions release into the air is formaldehyde.
MTBE can’t reduce smog because, along with fuel injection, most cars since 1984 had an additional device installed in their exhaust manifold called an oxygen sensor. The oxygen sensor regulates the amount of gas to be released by the injectors so that a cleaner burn will result. Dr. Joel M. Kauffman, a professor of chemistry at Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science, said that these oxygen sensors “will hold the concentrations of the usual pollutants to fixed (and desirably low) levels regardless of the composition of the gasoline.”
MTBE gets into our rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and groundwater many different ways including precipitation (from air pollution), storm water runoff, surface spills such as at gas stations, and leaks of underground storage tanks and pipes. Once in the water, it is hard to remove it because it is highly soluble.
According to an executive summary from Mountjoy’s office, MTBE has been found in California’s drinking water, including places such as Santa Monica, Marysville, a private water well in Elmira, and South Lake Tahoe wells.
MTBE has also been found in many reservoirs across the state including Shasta Lake, Anderson reservoir (Santa Clara Valley Water District), Modesto Reservoir, Castaic Lake, San Pablo reservoir (San Francisco Bay Area), and Lake Havasu.
Other authorities report that MTBE has been found in drinking water. A California Environmental Protection Agency report states the following: “As of June 6, 1996, five major oil companies submitted MTBE residue data for a total of 245 sites in 24 counties. About 76 percent of the sites reported detectable MTBE in one or more monitoring wells.”
Walt Wadlow, assistant general manager of the Santa Clara Water District said there is no biological or chemical breakdown of MTBE in water and it migrates at the speed of groundwater. This means that although MTBE is being discovered largely in shallow groundwater reservoirs, it could easily be found in deep wells and springs as well.
Those who have been exposed to MTBE through contact with gasoline have complained of extreme headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, cough, muscle aches, sleepiness, disorientation, dizziness, and skin and eye irritation. There is evidence that MTBE may also cause cancer in humans.
“MTBE causes the same cancers at the same levels in laboratory animals as benzene, a known human carcinogen,” said Mehlman, who later concluded that MTBE is, therefore, a probable human carcinogen.
In a letter to Carol Browner of the EPA during December of 1996, Mehlman wrote about the possible human carcinogenic effects of MTBE in water. “MTBE in water poses a risk of death from various cancers, and therefore, exposure to this dangerous chemical should be avoided in order to avoid needless and preventable cancer risk to humans,” he said.
Mehlman also said that MTBE contamination in water causes all kinds of neurological illnesses and can also form rashes on the surface of the skin.
Asthma is a health problem that seems to be aggravated by MTBE pollution. Although the EPA reports that incidents of asthma have decreased, Dr. Peter Joseph, professor of Radiologic Physics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, says they have actually increased by 50 to 100 percent. The asthma incidents, Joseph said, began to increase after 1979 when MTBE was first used at smaller levels.
Because of such potential health hazards, some areas ofn the country are taking action. For example, Alaska discontinued the use of MTBE in its gasoline. North Carolina also discontinued use of the additive.
But health is not the only concern. According to a Chevron technical bulletin, there is a potential for fuel leaks in cars. Texaco reported the same thing.
“In a very small percentage of older, high-mileage vehicles, it is possible that RFG [reformulated gas] could cause changes to rubber components in certain engines that may result in fuel leaks,” an inductry report said.
These fuel leaks can result in an increase in car fires. Alex Bess, a Santa Clara mechanic who has seen more repairs where gas lines and seals have to be replaced told the Associated Press that these leaks are dangerous. “The whole engine can catch fire,” he said.
Mehlman has one other major concern. He says MTBE has been known to cause drowsiness in drivers.