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Environmental Behavior and Fate of Methyl tert-Butyl Ether (MTBE)

Paul J. Squillace, James F. Pankow, Nic E. Korte, and John S. Zogorski

U.S. Geological Survey, 1608 Mt. View Road, Rapid City, South Dakota 57702
Phone (605) 355-4560 ext. 239, Telecopier (605) 355-4523,

When gasoline that has been oxygenated with methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) comes in contact with water, large amounts of MTBE can dissolve; at 25 degrees Celsius the water solubility of MTBE is about 5,000 milligrams per liter for a gasoline that is 10 percent MTBE by weight. In contrast, for a nonoxygenated gasoline, the total hydrocarbon solubility in water is typically about 120 milligrams per liter. MTBE sorbs only weakly to soil and aquifer materials; therefore, sorption will not significantly retard MTBE's transport by ground water. In addition, MTBE generally resists degradation in ground water. The half-life of MTBE in the atmosphere can be as short as 3 days in a regional airshed. MTBE in the air tends to partition into atmospheric water, including precipitation. However, washout of gas-phase MTBE by precipitation would not, by itself, greatly alter the gas-phase concentration of the compound in the air. The partitioning of MTBE to precipitation is nevertheless strong enough to allow for up to 3 micrograms per liter or more inputs of MTBE to surface and ground water.


1996, U.S. Geologcial Survey Fact Sheet, FS-203-96, 6 p.

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