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U.S. Geological Survey
Open-File Report 01-322
Online Version 1.0

A Review of Literature for Methyl tert-Butyl Ether (MTBE) in Sources of Drinking Water in the United States

By Gregory C. Delzer and Tamara Ivahnenko

The American Water Works Association Research Foundation is currently (2001) sponsoring an assessment of methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) in the Nation's drinking-water supplies. The assessment is being conducted by Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, U.S. Geological Survey, and Oregon Health & Science University and is scheduled for completion in fall 2002. One part of this national assessment included a literature review of MTBE in public and private drinking-water supplies, which is the focus of this report. An exhaustive review of literature conducted in 1997 for MTBE in water concluded that it was not possible to characterize MTBE in sources of drinking water due to limited data available at that time. As such, reviewed literature for this report focused on those assessments completed after the 1997 review. Specifically, this literature review focused on public and private water-supply assessments that were national, regional, or statewide in scope. Overall, 3 national, 2 regional, and 13 statewide assessments were reviewed.

Inconsistencies among assessments reviewed include different objectives, reporting levels, and different water types sampled such as ambient water and treated and untreated drinking water. This usually made comparisons among assessments difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. Regardless, results of this literature review indicate that MTBE has been detected in public and (or) private drinking-water supplies in 36 States with concentrations ranging from 0.1 to 17,800 µg/L (micrograms per liter). However, when median detected concentrations were available, they were typically low—less than 5.0 µg/L. In addition, the reviewed assessments collectively indicated that: (1) MTBE occurred in public drinking-water systems supplied by ground and surface water, and concentrations generally were less than 20 µg/L; (2) population density and reformulated gasoline use were significant factors for MTBE detection in water supplies; and (3) type of well, water supply, and proximity to gasoline storage tanks did not seem to be associated with MTBE detection.

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