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Data Available for Evaluating the Risks and Benefits of MTBE and Ethanol as Alternative Fuel Oxygenates


*Address correspondence to Pamela R. D. Williams, Exponent, 4940 Pearl East Circle, Suite 300, Boulder, CO 80301, USA;


The wide-scale use of methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) in gasoline has resulted in substantial public controversy and action to ban or control its use due to perceived impacts on water quality. Because oxygenates are still required under federal law, considerable research has focused on ethanol as a substitute for MTBE. In this article, we summarize the currently available literature on the air and water quality risks and benefits of MTBE versus ethanol as alternative fuel oxygenates. We find that MTBE-fuel blends are likely to have substantial air quality benefits; ethanol-fuel blends appear to offer similar benefits, but these may be at least partially negated because of ethanol's propensity to increase emissions and ambient concentrations of some air contaminants. Releases of gasoline containing either MTBE or ethanol could have an impact on some drinking water sources, although the impacts associated with MTBE tend to relate to aesthetics (i.e., taste and odor), whereas the impacts associated with ethanol generally relate to health risk (i.e., greater exposure to gasoline constituents such as benzene). It is likely that these water quality impacts will be outweighed by the air quality benefits associated with MTBE and perhaps ethanol use, which affect a much larger population. A lack of data on environmental exposures and associated health impacts hinders the completion of a comprehensive quantitative risk-benefit analysis, and the available air and water quality data should be evaluated in a broader risk-management context, which considers the potential life-cycle impacts, costs, and feasibility associated with alternative fuel oxygenates.