EU "should take action" on MTBE risks

Draft risk assessment cites significant threats to groundwater, though no new toxicity concerns

An EU risk assessment of the petrol additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) has recommended as yet unspecified risk reduction actions, citing groundwater contamination problems. The chemical is expected to become more widely used in the EU after strict new fuel quality standards come into force in 2005, but has already sparked controversy in the USA and also in Denmark (ENDS Daily 9 November 2000). The European Commission is urging speedy completion of the EU investigation, sources say.

Carried out by Finland, the assessment is part of the EU's "existing" chemicals review process. One element reviewed human health risks, and confirmed expectations that MTBE is not toxic. But a second review focusing on the chemical's environmental implications concludes that the scale of risk merits action of some kind. MTBE has a well-known tendency to contaminate groundwater, to which it can impart a foul taste and odour at tiny concentrations. Once in the environment it is very difficult and expensive to remove.

Finland's environmental risk assessment is scheduled to be sent to EU scientists for their opinion within days. Meanwhile, the Finnish authorities are already starting to draft specific risk reduction measures for proposal to other EU countries. This could be completed as early as March, according to an official, who stressed that "all available risk reduction options are being considered", including "end-use marketing restrictions".

An industry representative said he believed that whatever risk reduction measures are eventually proposed by the European Commission, they would not include a ban on MTBE use. "We want the real problem addressed, which is storage tanks leaking, not the chemical itself. This is an issue for the oil industry," said the source.

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 299 1111; CSTEE.

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