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MTBE Worries Widen

New research released Wednesday finds drinking water contamination from the gasoline additive MTBE may be far more widespread than previously thought–perhaps polluting one-third of the nation's drinking water wells, CBS Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin reports.

They are four little letters that spell big environmental trouble. MTBE: Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether--a gasoline additive--that scientists say may be polluting one third of the nation's drinking water wells.

The additive blended into gasoline in the early 90's to make it burn cleaner. It has spent a decade seeping out of underground gasoline tanks and into drinking water systems. But just how widespread is the contamination? The US geological survey estimates as many as 9,000 community water wells in 31 states may be affected because they are close to underground leaking storage tanks. Some experts believe those numbers are likely to grow.

"The bottom line is that 9,000 wells is probably an underestimate," says Erik Olson at Natural Resources Defense Council. "Literally millions of people are likely to be exposed every year."

People exposed to MTBE complain mostly of bad tasting water, strong fumes, headaches and nausea. But could it cause more serious health problems such as cancer? Scientists admit that they just don't know because it was never tested before being added to gasoline.

"We simply haven't done the research that we need to be sure that it is innocent. It's the kind of research we should have insisted upon for any new chemical that was coming out on the market," says Dr. Bernard Goldstein at Rutgers University.

Earlier this week President Clinton announced plans to phase MTBE out of gasoline. Environmental officials are trying to figure out how to clean up the mess: little comfort to the millions of Americans left wondering if their health is in jeopardy.

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