How the Environmental Protection Agency Became a Public Health Risk, by Michael Centrone

If the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established to safeguard the nation’s environment, then why does it require people to purchase gasoline that pollutes the water and makes them sick?

That, after all, is the result of the EPA’s controversial policy of requiring certain regions of the nation to sell gasoline that contains methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE), a gasoline additive that was supposed to help the environment.

Pursuant to the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, the EPA required that areas of the nation with the worst ozone smog problems use “environmentally-friendly” reformulated gasoline (RFG) to help achieve the agency’s clean air goals. MTBE is the gasoline oxygen additive that the petroleum industry most commonly used to satisfy the EPA’s mandate of reducing smog-producing tailpipe emissions.1 By 1999, it was used in 30% of the nation’s gasoline supply. As many as 16 states, including California, sold MTBE gasoline.2

However, this seemingly laudable activity has proven to be a costly public health debacle. The EPA ordered the costly MTBE requirement despite scientific research indicating that RFG would not reduce air pollution. A 1999 National Research Council study – requested and funded by the EPA – found that while RFG and MTBE “do reduce some pollutants from motor vehicle emissions, the oxygenates appear to have little impact on lowering ozone levels.”3 Incredibly, the EPA ignored this study and implemented regulations in 2000 to increase the use of RFG. Further, the need for oxygenated fuels may be unfounded, inasmuch as 75-85% of smog in major cities is from non-automobile sources4 and tailpipe emissions of new cars are 95% lower than they were in the 1960s.5

But MTBE’s ineffectiveness as an anti-pollutant was only the tip of the EPA’s regulatory miscarriage. MTBE poses significant health risks. The liquid is highly soluble in water and has been detected in approximately 20% of the ground water where RFG is sold, while there is only a 2% detection rate in non-RFG areas.6 A University of California study found that MTBE has affected at least 10,000 groundwater sites throughout that state.7 Besides presenting a turpentine like taste and odor to water, the additive is believed to be a human carcinogen and has caused maternal and fetal defects in lab animals. It also causes headaches, nausea, vomiting, disorientation and eye irritation upon exposure. The use of MTBE in RFG has also been shown to increase formaldehyde tailpipe emissions (a human carcinogen) by 13%.8

Confronted with these disturbing findings, the EPA finally admitted that the MTBE mandate was a major mistake. In March 2000, EPA administrator Carol Browner, once an ardent MTBE proponent, announced that the agency would phase out the MTBE mandate. This comes only eight years after use of the oxygenate was first encouraged by the EPA as a safe and effective way to reduce ozone depleting tailpipe emissions.9

In addition to doing little for the environment and posing serious health risks, MTBE has a harmful effect on wallets. With gas prices averaging $1.71 per gallon nationwide in June, many Americans can ill-afford to pay an additional 10 cents per gallon for gasoline containing MTBE.10 These costs are magnified by the fact that gasoline oxygenated with MTBE results in an average 2-3% loss of fuel efficiency.11

Elevated gas prices have hit low income and minority populations the hardest. Frustrated with the EPA’s initial refusal to address its flawed RFG policy, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL) observed in June that “working families are bearing the brunt of EPA’s inaction.”12 In 1998, a year marked by the second lowest gas prices on record, African-American households spent an average of $1,121 on gasoline, natural gas and other fuels while spending just $1,069 on health care. Similarly, the poorest 20% of the population spent 4.43% of their total expenditures on gasoline, natural gas and other fuels while the richest 20% spent just 3% of total expenditures on fuels but purchased almost twice as much gasoline as the poorest 20%.13

The costs for cleaning up MTBE pollution are ultimately borne by the consumer. Annual MTBE treatment costs range up to an average of $391 per family of four, which includes a federal gasoline surtax that funds state clean-up programs.14 This is an onerous expenditure indeed for the typical household in the lowest 20% of the income bracket with an average after-tax income of just $7,049.15

EPA’s MTBE debacle poignantly illustrates the price we all pay when sound science is ignored. Had EPA shown more patience and listened to its own experts, this costly pollution of the nation’s water supply need not have occurred. But the agency didn’t listen and now Americans, especially minorities and the poor, are paying the price for the EPA’s mistake.


Michael J. Centrone is a research associate for The National Center for Public Policy Research’s Environmental Policy Task Force.

1 “EPA MTBE Frequently Asked Questions,” Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, downloaded from on June 28, 2000.

2 Josef Hebert, “Report Finds Gas Additive Can Be Harmful to Environment,” Associated Press, July 26, 1999.

3 “Commonly Available Ethanol and MTBE Gasoline Blends Do Little to Reduce Smog,” National Research Council, Washington, DC, May 11, 1999.

4 Michael Gough, “Clearing the Air on EPA’s New Emissions Proposal,” Competitive Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC, May 10, 1999.

5 “Air Quality is Improving,” American Petroleum Institute, Washington, DC, downloaded from on June 29, 2000.

6 “Achieving Clean Air and Clean Water: The Report of the Blue Ribbon Panel on Oxygenates in Gasoline,” Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, September 15, 1999.

7 Hebert, July 26, 1999.

8 “Achieving Clean Air and Clean Water,” September 15, 1999.

9 “Administration Moves to Ban Gasoline Additive,” Associated Press, March 21, 2000.

10 Jay Hancock, “Clinton Blames Oil Cost on Gas-Guzzling Vehicles,” Sunspot (online news service of The Baltimore Sun, downloaded from on June 29, 2000.

11 “Interagency Assessment of Oxygenated Fuels,” National Science and Technology Council Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, June, 1997.

12 Ellen Sung, “Cleaner Fuels, Higher Prices,”, downloaded from on June 30, 2000.

13 “Consumer Expenditure Survey,” Bureau of Labor Statistics, Washington, DC, 1998, downloaded from on July 5, 2000.

14 “Achieving Clean Air and Clean Water,” September 15, 1999.

15 “Consumer Expenditure Survey,” 1998.

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