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ToxFAQs™ for Methyl tert-Butyl Ether (MTBE)
This fact sheet answers the most frequently asked health questions about methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE). For more information, you may call the ATSDR Information Center at 1-888-422-8737. This fact sheet is one in a series of summaries about hazardous substances and their health effects. This information is important because this substance may harm you. The effects of exposure to any hazardous substance depend on the dose, the duration, how you are exposed, personal traits and habits, and whether other chemicals are present.
Methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) is a flammable liquid which is used as an additive in unleaded gasoline. Drinking or breathing MTBE may cause nausea, nose and throat irritation, and nervous system effects. MTBE has been found in at least 11 of the 1,430 National Priorities List sites identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
What is methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE)?
Methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) is a flammable liquid with a distinctive, disagreeable odor. It is made from blending chemicals such as isobutylene and methanol, and has been used since the 1980s as an additive for unleaded gasolines to achieve more efficient burning.
MTBE is also used to dissolve gallstones. Patients treated in this way have MTBE delivered directly to their gall bladders through special tubes that are surgically inserted.
What happens to methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) when it enters the environment?
- MTBE quickly evaporates from open containers and surface water, so it is commonly found as a vapor in the air.
- Small amounts of MTBE may dissolve in water and get into underground water.
- It remains in underground water for a long time.
- MTBE may stick to particles in water, which will cause it to eventually settle to the bottom sediment.
- MTBE may be broken down quickly in the air by sunlight.
- MTBE does not build up significantly in plants and animals.
How might I be exposed to methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE)?
- Touching the skin or breathing contaminated air while pumping gasoline.
- Breathing exhaust fumes while driving a car.
- Breathing air near highways or in cities.
- Drinking, swimming, or showering in water that has been contaminated with MTBE.
- Receiving MTBE treatment for gallstones.
How can methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) affect my health?
Breathing small amounts of MTBE for short periods may cause nose and throat irritation. Some people exposed to MTBE while pumping gasoline, driving their cars, or working in gas stations have reported having headaches, nausea, dizziness, and mental confusion. However, the actual levels of exposure in these cases are unknown. In addition, these symptoms may have been caused by exposure to other chemicals.
There are no data on the effects in people of drinking MTBE. Studies with rats and mice suggest that drinking MTBE may cause gastrointestinal irritation, liver and kidney damage, and nervous system effects.
How likely is methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) to cause cancer?
There is no evidence that MTBE causes cancer in humans. One study with rats found that breathing high levels of MTBE for long periods may cause kidney cancer. Another study with mice found that breathing high levels of MTBE for long periods may cause liver cancer.
The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), and the EPA have not classified MTBE as to its carcinogenicity.
Is there a medical test to show whether I've been exposed to methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) ?
MTBE and its breakdown product, butyl alcohol, can be detected in your breath, blood, or urine for up to 1 or 2 days after exposure. These tests aren’t available at most doctors’ offices, but can be done at special laboratories that have the right equipment. There is no other test specific to determining MTBE exposure.
Has the federal government made recommendations to protect human health?
The EPA has issued guidelines recommending that, to protect children, drinking water levels of MTBE not exceed 4 milligrams per liter of water (4mg/L) for an exposure of 1-10 days, and 3 mg/L for longer-term exposures.
The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) has recommended an exposure limit of 40 parts of MTBE per million parts of air (40 ppm) for an 8-hour workday, 40-hour workweek.
Carcinogenicity: Ability to cause cancer.
CAS: Chemical Abstracts Service.
Evaporate: To change into a vapor or gas.
Milligram (mg): One thousandth of a gram.
ppm: Parts per million.
Sediment: Mud and debris that have settled to the bottom of a body of water.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). 1996. Toxicological Profile for Methyl tert-Butyl Ether (MTBE). Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service.
Where can I get more information?
If you have questions or concerns, please contact your community or state health or environmental quality department or:
For more information, contact:
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Division of Toxicology and Human Health Sciences
1600 Clifton Road NE, Mailstop F-57
Atlanta, GA 30333
Phone: 1-800-CDC-INFO · 888-232-6348 (TTY)
ATSDR can also tell you the location of occupational and environmental health clinics. These clinics specialize in recognizing, evaluating, and treating illnesses resulting from exposure to hazardous substances.
Information line and technical assistance:
To order toxicological profiles, contact:
National Technical Information Service
5285 Port Royal Road
Springfield, VA 22161
Phone: 800-553-6847 or 703-605-6000
Some PDF files may be electronic conversions from paper copy or other electronic ASCII text files. This conversion may have resulted in character translation or format errors. Users are referred to the original paper copy of the toxicological profile for the official text, figures, and tables. Original paper copies can be obtained via the directions on the toxicological profile home page, which also contains other important information about the profiles.
The information contained here was correct at the time of publication. Please check with the appropriate agency for any changes to the regulations or guidelines cited.
- Page last reviewed: March 3, 2011
- Page last updated: October 19, 2011
- Content source: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry