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Keywords:

  • Cancer risk;
  • comparative risk assessment;
  • drinking water;
  • MTBE;
  • volatile organic compounds

Ongoing publicity about methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) suggests that this chemical is of greater concern than other contaminants commonly found in drinking water. The purpose of this article is to evaluate the available MTBE data in context with other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are detected in public drinking water sources in California. We find that of the 28 VOCs with a primary maximum contaminant level (MCL) in California, 21 were found in 50 or more drinking water sources from 1985 to 2002. Over the last 10 years, the most frequently detected VOCs were chloroform, tetrachloroethylene (PCE), and trichloroethylene (TCE), which were found in about 9–15% of all sampled drinking water sources. These same chemicals were found to have the highest mean detected concentrations over the last 5 years, ranging from 13 to 15 μg/L. Many VOCs were also found to routinely exceed state and federal drinking water standards, including benzene and carbon tetrachloride. By comparison, MTBE was found in approximately 1% of sampled drinking water sources for most years, and of those drinking water sources found to contain MTBE from 1998 to 2002, over 90% had detected concentrations below California's primary MCL of 13 μg/L. Relative to the other VOCs evaluated, MTBE has the lowest estimated California cancer potency value, and was found to pose one of the least cancer risks from household exposures to contaminated drinking water. These findings suggest that MTBE poses an insignificant threat to public drinking water supplies and public health in California, particularly when compared to other common drinking water contaminants.