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Health concerns raised by critics of fuel additive

Patrick McCartney

By cleaning the nation’s air, oxygenated fuels were supposed to improve the nation’s health.

But, after five years of increasing use of a controversial fuel additive, some scientists suspect the ether-like compound has been responsible for a host of medical problems, including an unexplained explosion in the number of people with asthma.

The culprit, say the critics, is methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE, one of a handful of so-called oxygenates added to gasoline to reduce the amount of carbon monoxide emissions.

While many clean-air advocates say the additive has delivered on its promise to help improve air quality, and insist that MTBE has been found safe, skeptical researchers say the use of MTBE is a serious threat to the health of millions. The critics claim that MTBE is responsible for widespread respiratory complaints where it is used, and is a possible cause of cancer in some.

“Tens of thousands of people are getting seriously hurt with various illnesses, some with acute symptoms,” said Myron Mehlman, an adjunct professor of public health at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey.

Yet, defenders of the fuel additive say no hard evidence has surfaced that proves MTBE is responsible for acute health problems. They point to peer-reviewed scientific studies that have failed to document serious problems from the use of an additive that has become one of the world’s most commonly produced organic compounds.

“To date, I don’t know of any credible scientific study that shows any risk to the public when MTBE is used as an additive,” said John Kneiss, director of health and product stewardship for the Oxygenated Fuel Association.

The debate continues today, with scientists on either side of the fence pointing out flaws in the methodology or conclusions of studies that tend to support the other side.

But even its supporters concede that more research needs to be conducted on possible health effects of the ether-related compound.

Those who are leery of the additive say the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should have conducted an analysis of MTBE before the agency ordered the oil industry in 1990 to add oxygen-rich compounds to gasoline during the winter in areas with high levels of carbon monoxide.

But the rule left the choice of which additive to use to the oil companies, and the industry’s additive of choice has been MTBE, which is produced from isobutane, a byproduct of gasoline refining, and methanol from natural gas.

The most common alternate additive is ethanol, an alcohol that is manufactured from agricultural crops, principally corn.

As soon as so-called oxyfuels were introduced in November 1992 in most of the 39 metropolitan areas with high carbon monoxide levels, numerous individuals complained of headaches, sinus problems, shortness of breath and dizziness.

In Fairbanks, Alaska, 200 residents called a local hot line to complain of a variety of symptoms following the introduction of oxygenated fuel that contained 15 percent MTBE. By December, the state’s governor banned the additive.

A Centers for Disease Control study reported that more than two-thirds of the subjects participating in a study reported headaches or eye irritation when exposed to fuel containing the additive. The study also found a connection between the number of complaints and the level of MTBE in the subjects’ blood level, although the results were not statistically significant.

In a follow-up, the study found that the number of subjects complaining of symptoms practically disappeared after MTBE was removed from the state’s gasoline.

Residents of Missoula, Mont. lived through a similar experience in the winter of 1992-93, when almost all of the city’s gasoline included the additive. The city-county health department received numerous complaints, prompting the local air-quality board to evaluate what health risks were known about the additive.

“Many of the acute symptoms reported by citizens are consistent with known acute effects of MTBE,” concluded a panel that studied the complaints at the request of Missoula’s air pollution control board. The board recommended that local fuel suppliers switch to ethanol as an additive during the winter of 1993-94, and no health complaints were reported when ethanol was substituted.

Defenders of the additive attribute the widespread complaints to negative publicity the additive received where it was introduced, including a sharp increase in the cost of gasoline. Plus, MTBE tends to have a strong, turpentine-like odor that some people may associate with health problems, they say.

And proponents of MTBE as an additive further say that subsequent studies have failed to identify MTBE as the cause of respiratory and other health problems. They point to one study that found no difference in health complaints from areas with and without the additive, and another study that failed to uncover problems when subjects were exposed to the additive for an hour.

But those studies were flawed in different ways, the critics contend. Only healthy subjects were selected for the studies, for instance, eliminating anyone with allergies or other medical conditions who might have been more susceptible. And one of the studies showed that subjects with a high blood level of MTBE were more likely to report symptoms.

Peter Joseph, a medical researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, believes that MTBE is the No. 1 suspect behind the alarming rise in asthma cases and deaths from asthma in the United States. Joseph attributes the respiratory complaints not just to MTBE, but to its combustion byproducts, such as formaldehyde, and to its metabolites, such as tertiary butyl alcohol.

Many people who have experienced respiratory distress after the introduction of MTBE improve when they visit areas of the country without the additive, he contends.

In a survey conducted for the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union, Mehlman reported that half its members who worked with the additive reported headaches, sinus problems or other complaints.

Sylvia Kieding, the union’s health and safety officer, said the union believes the additive should be regarded as a carcinogen.

“Our members have complained of the same symptoms that consumers have,” Kieding said. “MTBE has stood out as a problem, and we’re afraid workers are being the guinea pigs in an ongoing experiment.”


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