Methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) is a volatile organic compound that is colorless, odorless, and flammable. It dissolves easily in water. MTBE is in a category of chemicals called “oxygenates” because it raises the oxygen content of gasoline; this prevents explosions of air pockets in combustion, also known as “knocking” in a vehicle’s engine. MTBE was in widespread use between 1979 and 2005 in the United States, in part because of legislation that required the use of oxygenates in reformulated gasoline (or RFG). Oil companies chose to use MTBE as an oxygenates to meet RFG requirements because of its low cost of manufacture and transport.
MTBE contamination is a national concern in the United States. Studies have found that MTBE has impacted groundwater throughout the country. This is a public health concern because in many areas of the country, even in the heavily developed northeastern states of New Jersey, a great number of citizens obtain their drinking water from groundwater sources such as potable wells. MTBE is known to have an offensive taste and odor (similar to turpentine), so people have reported being able to identify it in their water when it is above certain levels. However, this is not always the case and people can be exposed to MTBE without their knowledge. In some cases, people can be exposed to MTBE through drinking water for a long period of time without knowing it. The presence of MTBE in drinking water is often a sign of a nearby spill or leak from a gasoline service station, often from the rupture of an underground storage tank or piping system containing gasoline oxygenated with MTBE. Inhalation of MTBE is also dangerous. Inhalation can occur through exposure in an industrial setting where MTBE is used, or through volatilization of MTBE—when it changes from a liquid phase to a gas phase. For example, water contaminated with MTBE can give off MTBE vapors that can be dangerous to human health. MTBE evaporates quickly, and large amounts of the vapor could enter closed spaces. Therefore, there is concern over intrusion of MTBE vapors into the indoor air of buildings that sit above contamination plumes containing MTBE.
Ongoing research into its health effects suggests that MTBE is a potential carcinogen at high doses. Some people working with MTBE have complained of headaches, nausea, dizziness, irritation of the nose or throat, and feelings of confusion. Some studies also suggest that MTBE exposure may cause liver damage, harm to white blood cells, nausea, and vomiting. Observations of the effects of MTBE on laboratory animals suggest that MTBE causes nose and throat irritation, kidney disease, engorged liver, and cancer of the kidneys and liver. Laboratory mice exposed to high doses of MTBE have also been observed to develop blood cancers.
The Toxic Injury Lawyers believe that if you’re made ill by someone else’s actions, you deserve relief. If you’ve been impacted by the release of hazardous substances, such as gasoline containing MTBE, or other toxic pollutants, we want to help. Call and speak to a member of our courteous staff at 732-355-1311, or submit a confidential case inquiry here.
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