A dangerous chemical once added to gasoline is still haunting water managers throughout the country. Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether (MTBE) is an oxygenator added to gasoline to help improve air quality. California used the chemical from 1996 until 2002 when studies showed it was contaminating groundwater sources. The Environmental Protection Agency lists MTBE as a probable carcinogen.
As MTBE leaked out of underground gas tanks, dozens of people started complaining of a turpentine taste to the water and many claimed to suffer breathing problems, rashes and other skin disorders.
California discontinued the use of MTBE in 2002 but many old abandoned gas stations still have the chemical leaking from underground gas tanks. In the late 1990s, the chemical was blamed for shutting down one third of South Lake Tahoe’s drinking water wells. Water companies in Rancho Cordova, Marysville and other cities reported MTBE detections. There was thought to be no way to clean MTBE from ground water. Water managers would separate the contaminated water from their sources and write off the use of that water indefinitely.
Now though, University of California, Davis researchers have come up with an answer to the MTBE contamination problem. Kate Scow’s lab at the university has discovered an organism that eats MTBE. Nicknamed PM1, the organism is present in groundwater. However, it has to be pumped to the surface where it can multiply and eat the MTBE present.
A field study using a bio-reactor in Burbank is proving that the organism is an effective MTBE eater. To see the bio-reactor in action, click on the story above from News10's Cristina Mendonsa.