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Gas Additive Reduces Pollution But Fumes Might Cause Illness

By Daniel P. Jones
The Hartford Courant

When environmental officials recently began requiring oil companies to add a sizable concentration of a chemical to gasoline, most clean-air advocates welcomed the additive as way to reduce harmful pollution.

A small group of scientists, though, began sounding a warning that the chemical - methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE - was itself causing people to get sick, mostly when they breathed fumes while pumping gas.

At first, health authorities who backed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's mandate to use MTBE were quick to dismiss such claims, pointing to several studies that did not show a problem. But lately, as the health complaints persist, many of the authorities are grudgingly taking a harder look at whether the chemical is poisoning people.

A few scientists - some of whom attribute their own health problems to MTBE - go so far as to claim that the use of the chemical in gasoline might be responsible for a sharp rise in recent years in the number of asthma sufferers nationwide.

"Thousands of people are being affected, and neither they nor their doctors realize it," said Peter M. Joseph, a professor of radiologic physics at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center in Philadelphia.

Oxy-Busters of Connecticut, a newly formed chapter of a citizens' group opposing the use of MTBE in nearly 20 states, attributes a variety of ailments to the additive, including nausea, sore throats, skin rashes, eye irritations, neurological problems and lethargy.

MTBE, which is made by combining derivatives of natural gas and crude oil, was added to premium-grade gasolines without any fanfare as an anti-knock ingredient beginning in 1982. But the concentration of MTBE in the fuel was only about 3 percent.

Then in 1988, in the first of what would be many well-publicized cleaner-fuels programs, the city of Denver required its use in higher concentrations to increase oxygen content and make gasoline burn more completely, thus reducing carbon monoxide emissions from autos. There were complaints there, but nothing like the overwhelming reaction from motorists in Alaska and Missoula, Mont., where MTBE was introduced in 1992 under a federal Clean Air Act mandate. So many complaints were registered that the substance was banned in those places.

Soon after the clean-air programs began, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study in Stamford, Conn., where there had been no publicly expressed concerns about MTBE, found a statistically significant association between people with seven transitory health complaints, such as nausea, headaches, dizziness and burning eyes, and a higher MTBE blood level.

But that study was not conclusive because other factors that might have brought about the health complaints could not be ruled out.