Well Water Contaminants FAQ: MTBE

MTBE methyl tertiary-butyl ether Well Water Contamination

Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether (MTBE) is an additive that is added to gasoline to decrease carbon monoxide and ozone in auto emissions. It is highly soluble in water and as a result has become a prevalent contaminant found in water systems throughout the U.S. 

It is still unclear if MTBE is a health hazard. It is found throughout the U.S. entering the environment in a number of ways, from auto emissions to leaking boats and leaking gasoline tanks. If you receive water from a private well, speak with your local well water professional. They will most likely know if MTBE is present in your location, provide well water testing services, and can advise you on your options.

Let's look at some frequently asked questions and answers to help you learn more about MTBE, its health effects and treatment options.

What is MTBE?

MTBE is a volatile organic compound (VOC) that is an additive used in gasoline to reduce carbon monoxide and ozone levels in auto emissions. MTBE is a member of a group of chemicals commonly known as fuel oxygenates. Since 1979, MTBE has replaced lead as an octane booster.

How did MTBE get into my well water?

MTBE is released into the environment through auto emissions, leaking tanks, motorboats, jetskis, or leaking wells. It is leaked onto the ground, into surface water and percolates through the soil to reach underground aquifers. Because it is water soluable, it mixes easily with water.

You can detect MTBE contamination through it's distinct odor. If your water has a slight “turpentine” smell you may have MTBE present. It is detectable in concentrations as low as 15 – 45 parts per billion (ppb). If you notice a turpentine taste or smell you should have your water tested for MTBE.

What are the health effects of MTBE?

Even though MTBE has been present in the environment since the 1980's it is not clear if it is a health hazard. As part of the 1996 Safe Drinking Water Act MTBE has been placed on thedrinking water Contaminant Candidate list (CCL). This makes it a candidate for additional research. Currently most testing data comes from anmal studies.

It is known that a low concentrations inhalation can cause nose and throat irritation. Drinking small amounts may cause diarrhea and irritation to the gastrointestinal tract. More serious effects may occur at higher concentrations but these levels are seldom present in drinking water.

Fortunately the body is able to break down MTBE readily and excrete it in breath, blood, and urine. Tests for exposure are not yet available and symptoms are common, so it 's hard to rule out other contaminants.

Should I test For MTBE as part of my annual testing?

MTBE emits an odor that smells like turpentine at concentratons of between 15 and 45 ppb. If you suspect that your well may be contaminated, your state water department can give you a list of laboratories certified to test for MTBE. It costs around $150 per sample. Skillings & Sons provides make testing kits available for free. Contact us for more information. The EPA recommends annual testing if you receive your water from a private well. Most municipal systems test for MTBE and treat water before it is distributed. If you'd like to learn more, request a copy of your annual water quality survey. You can also speak with your local well water professional. They will most likely be aware if MTBE has been found in your area.

What do I do if MTBE is present in my water supply?

Public water systems use existing technologies such as air stripping, granular activated charcoal, and reverse osmosis with activated carbon block as pre-filtration and advanced oxidation to remove MTBE from municipal supplies. For the homeowner who has a private well, whole house point-of-entry, as well as point-of-use systems are available that are effective at MTBE removal.

If you are unsure or suspect MTBE may be present in your water supply, give your local well water professional a call. They can help you to arrange testing and can go over your options if MTBE is found in your well water. Cost effective treatment systems are available that can address MTBE and other contaminants. Your well water professional can provide cost and installation information for your specific needs.

Nothing is more important then your family's health and well-being. Your well health is your responsibility. Consider installing a water treatment system for your home. It an affordable option that will provide peace of mind for you and your entire family.