What Is MTBE In Water?

Unfortunately, many communities across the country are plagued with dirty and unsafe drinking water. One such pollutant that affects communities across North America is MTBE. The presence of MTBE in drinking water can be potentially harmful. Fortunately, testing and filtration can be done to make sure you are getting the cleanest, safest water in your home.

MTBE: What Is It?

MTBE stands for Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether. It is a chemical that was originally added to gasoline to try to help it burn cleaner. Over time, this chemical has seeped into community water sources through both leaks in petroleum storage tanks and pipelines. This chemical degrades very slowly, and it dissolves easily in water, allowing it to travel farther, spread much easier, and last much longer in your water supply than other chemicals.

Why should you be concerned about it?

MTBE in water is terrible for the environment and can harm the lifecycle of aquatic animals. The main reason for concern, however, is the health effects that MTBE can cause when ingested by humans.

Although studies are limited, they have shown MTBE can cause these issues:

  • Short-Term: Some of the shorter-term symptoms may include nausea, dizziness, drowsiness, and headaches. In other testing done on animals, kidney problems were shown to be a common symptom.
  • Long-Term: There have not been any long-term studies on humans. However, in animals, results have shown an increase risk for cancer. While this is a serious problem, it should be made clear that these animals are typically drinking water with much greater levels of MTBE than is typically found in drinking water.

While it’s good to be concerned, this is also not a reason to start panicking. The chemical comes with a nasty, bitter taste, and odor that, according to a study from the University of Massachusetts, some describe as tasting like turpentine. Because of this, many will not experience these symptoms simply because they will not drink the water that is contaminated.

Possible solutions

There are a few different treatment methods to filtering MTBE out of your water. The main two methods are called “Air Stripping” and Reverse Osmosis with an activated carbon block as pre-filtrations.

  1. Air Stripping: This method involves allowing large amounts of air to run through the contaminated water, breaking up the water into smaller droplets. The end goal of this is that the contaminated water will evaporate into the air.
  2. Reverse Osmosis: Using reverse osmosis is another great way to filter the MTBE out of your water. This is a much simpler way for the everyday user to filter their water. The filter works to attract many different contaminants to its surface, allowing the water to pass through without the MTBE mixed in.

How do I know if there are MTBE in my water?

The main way to know if there are MTBE in your water is through its strange smell and taste. Some other steps you can take include calling your local utility to ask if they test for MTBE. If they do, ask if it is in the drinking water and if so, what levels. All local utilities are required to release an annual water quality report. Find your local utility on Google to access the report.

If you have a private well or your local utility does not test for MTBE, lab testing can be done. Contact your local Culligan of Monterey & Santa Cruz Counties to learn more about this.

Scenarios in which MTBE has affected a community.

In larger cities where this problem is prevalent, such as San Diego, 1.2 million people have been affected by MTBE in drinking water. Many communities that are affected by MTBE in drinking water don’t even know it. This is because their city legislators are already taking steps to fix it. This does however, come at a hefty cost as, according to consumer watchdog group Environmental Working Group, “remedies for large cities alone could eventually reach $29 billion, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.”

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