MTBE is a volatile, flammable, and colorless liquid that is sparingly soluble in water. It has a minty odor vaguely reminiscent of diethyl ether, leading to unpleasant taste and odor in water. MTBE is a gasoline additive, used as an oxygenate to raise the octane number. Its use is controversial in the US and declining in that country in part because of its occurrence in groundwater and legislation favoring ethanol. Worldwide production of MTBE has been constant at about 18 million tons/y (2005) owing to growth in Asian markets which are less subject to ethanol subsidies.
According to the IARC, a cancer research agency of the World Health Organization, MTBE is not classified as a human carcinogen. MTBE can be tasted in water at concentrations of 5 - 15 Âµg/l.
As of 2007, researchers have limited data about the health effects of ingestion of MTBE. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has concluded that available data are inadequate to quantify health risks of MTBE at low exposure levels in drinking water, but that the data support the conclusion that MTBE is a potential human carcinogen at high doses.