A widely used gasoline additive that makes cars pollute less, but may cause cancer, has been fouling water systems in Maryland, authorities said.
The additive, known as MTBE, has been detected in about 210 private wells and 140 monitoring wells drilled near gas stations since 1998, state officials say. It has also turned up in 66 of the more than 1,000 public water systems in Maryland, which began testing in 1995.
The state Department of the Environment does not know the full extent of contamination and is asking lawmakers for permission to use $150,000 to raise the number of groundwater inspectors from 21 to 24.
"We don't think that we have a crisis situation here," Rick Collins, director of the department's Water Management Division, said Tuesday. However, he continued, "I don't want you to go away thinking everything's under control."
Small amounts of MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether, first came into use in gasoline in the 1970s to boost octane and later, in greater amounts, to "oxygenate"' gas, reducing pollution coming out of automobile tailpipes.
Following the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1990, federal authorities ordered the phase-in of oxygenates in gasoline sold in the nation's smoggiest urban areas.
Terry Wigglesworth, executive director of the Oxygenated Fuels Association, an Arlington, Va.-based trade group, said Maryland has enjoyed tremendously cleaner air because of MTBE.
But concerns about the petrochemical arose in the mid-1990s when a European study linked MTBE to liver and kidney tumors in mice. The danger to humans is unknown, but the EPA considers it a "potential human carcinogen."
The Environmental Protection Agency reversed policy last summer and recommended its use be sharply curtailed.