Volume 12, Issue 40 ~ September 30-October 6 2004
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Letters to the Editor

We welcome your opinions and letters — with name and address. We will edit when necessary. Include your name, address and phone number for verification. Mail them to Bay Weekly, P.O. Box 358, Deale, MD 20751 • E-mail them to us at [email protected]. Or Click Here to Submit Your Letters Online.

Debating MTBE

Dear Bay Weekly:
There are liberal newspapers and conservative newspapers, but all major newspapers are at least responsible. In a September 23 editorial, “Alphabet Soup,” [Vol. XII, No. 29] Bay Weekly approached a level of irresponsibility in fact checking and logical analysis that more rightly belong to a third class of newspaper, the tabloids.

As a chemical engineer with long experience as a research engineer in the chemical industry (the people who make or have a hand in making almost every material used in modern society), I take exception to some of the statements and innuendoes in this editorial that castigates the use of MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether) as a gasoline additive and unfairly places blame on this life-protecting additive instead of on those responsible for its mishandling.

Bay Weekly calls MTBE “cancer-causing.” Strange, the American Cancer Society does not think so, nor does the Environmental Protection Agency. Yes, it smells bad and may even taste strange when it gets into groundwater used for drinking. So do many products that can be found in grocery stores, paint stores, and hardware stores. MTBE is added to gasoline, at government directive, to reduce harmful exhaust emissions from vehicle engines, thus making our air safer to
breath. It belongs in the gasoline. Obviously, it should not get into our water supplies.

The problem is that fuel distributors have allowed fuel and fuel vapors to leak into the environment such that the MTBE additive mingles with and dissolves in water supplies. Existing leaks should be cleaned up and future leaks prevented. Our Department of the Environment watchdogs are supposed to be on top of this, but are they?

The quick and poorly thought out solution is: “Let’s ban MTBE!” Then what? Go back to unhealthy air pollution from vehicle exhausts? Not a good idea. Replace MTBE with ethyl alcohol? Also not a good idea, as your editorial points out.

The fact that recent statistics indicate that SUV registration in Maryland is up a whopping 59 percent is another reason to recognize the contribution MTBE makes to improving air quality by reducing air pollution.

MTBE is cheap, plentiful and works as intended. How about promoting proper containment and proper oversight? That should work. Bans are easy to ask for, but they are not a well-thought-out solution for this region.

—Sidney Rankin, Baltimore

Editor’s note: Additional critics of MTBE include Dr. Myron Mehlman, Mount Sinai School of Medicine faculty member and former toxicologist for Mobil Oil, who said: “Arguing that MTBE does not cause cancer is like saying that cigarettes don’t cause cancer. There is absolutely no question that MTBE causes cancer.”

The government’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has found that prolonged breathing exposure to MTBE causes cancer in lab animals. But it has not placed the additive on a list of known human carcinogens. The oil and chemical industry has mounted an expensive defense of MTBE. Nonetheless, California, New York and Michigan are among 20 states that have banned or severely limited use of what the letter-writer calls this “life-protecting additive.” We think Maryland should consider joining the ban.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.