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December 4, 1991

If the Tap Water Smells Foul, Think MTBE

Author Affiliations

University of Nebraska Medical Center Omaha

University of Nebraska Medical Center Omaha

JAMA. 1991;266(21):2985-2986. doi:10.1001/jama.1991.03470210053025

To the Editor.  —Methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE, CAS No. 1634-04-4) is a water-soluble gasoline additive of such increasing use that it is the fastest growing chemical product in US industry (Chem Eng News. June 10, 1991:13). A recent familial exposure suggests that the foul odor of MTBE may fortuitously serve as a sentinel for gasoline contamination.A family of five moved to a farmstead on a quarter-mile tract between a gasoline pipeline terminal and a river. Six months earlier, the groundwater (6 to 8 feet in depth) at the terminal had been visibly contaminated with gasoline. The family sank a new well to 60 feet. Thirty months later, the household water became rapidly and progressively malodorous. It did not smell like gasoline. The family drank bottled water, but the tap water used for baths, laundry, and dishwashing evoked headache, dizziness, nausea, and dyspnea in all five family members. Well-water