The occurrence and implications of methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) and gasoline hydrocarbons were examined in three surveys of water quality conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey?one national-scale survey of ground water, one national-scale survey of source water from ground water, and one regional-scale survey of drinking water from ground water. The overall detection frequency of MTBE in all three surveys was similar to the detection frequencies of some other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that have much longer production and use histories in the United States. The detection frequency of MTBE was higher in drinking water and lower in source water and ground water. However, when the data for ground water and source water were limited to the same geographic extent as drinking-water data, the detection frequencies of MTBE were comparable to the detection frequency of MTBE in drinking water. In all three surveys, the detection frequency of any gasoline hydrocarbon was less than the detection frequency of MTBE. No concentration of MTBE in source water exceeded the lower limit of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Drinking-Water Advisory of 20 ?g/L (micrograms per liter). One concentration of MTBE in ground water exceeded 20 ?g/L, and 0.9 percent of drinking-water samples exceeded 20 ?g/L.
The overall detection frequency of MTBE relative to other widely used VOCs indicates that MTBE is an important concern with respect to ground-water management. The probability of detecting MTBE was strongly associated with population density, use of MTBE in gasoline, and recharge, and weakly associated with density of leaking underground storage tanks, soil permeability, and aquifer consolidation. Only concentrations of MTBE above 0.5 ?g/L were associated with dissolved oxygen. Ground water underlying areas with high population density, ground water underlying areas where MTBE is used as a gasoline oxygenate, and ground water underlying areas with high recharge has a greater probability of MTBE contamination. Ground water from public-supply wells and shallow ground water underlying urban land-use areas has a greater probability of MTBE contamination compared to ground water from domestic wells and ground water underlying rural land-use areas.