We assess the environmental health impact and policy implications of the widespread addition of methyl -butyl ether (MTBE) as a chemical that is used as an oxygenate to much of the gasoline supply in the United States. Initial concerns about short-term and long-term adverse health consequences following the substantial increase in MTBE use in the winter of 1992–1993 have been supplemented by the discovery in 1996 of what is now relatively widespread contamination of groundwater. We identify 14 governmental initiatives during the 10-year period 1989–1999 in which the potential adverse consequences of MTBE were considered and a nearly identical research agenda was proposed. The lessons from the ongoing MTBE episode show that: () research should precede rather than follow environmental health policy decisions; () the extent of potential human and environmental exposure should be an important criterion in determining the amount of information needed before making an environmental policy decision; () a better understanding of nonspecific human symptoms associated with environmental exposures is needed; () the boundaries between the US Environmental Protection Agency program offices should be as porous as the boundaries between environmental media; () the US Environmental Protection Agency needs to focus more on public health rather than on legal approaches to environmental management; () it is more difficult to remove a chemical once it is in commerce than it is to prevent its use; () resolution of uncertainty is best accomplished through research rather than through repetitive review; and () better tools are needed to evaluate risk/risk trade-offs. The ongoing replacement of MTBE by other, less well studied oxygenates such as tertiary amyl methyl ether indicates that these environmental public policy lessons have not been learned.


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  • Article Type: Review Article
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