Magazine article Science News

Stream Bed Bugs Eat Gasoline Pollutants

Magazine article Science News

Stream Bed Bugs Eat Gasoline Pollutants

Article excerpt

Microbes dwelling in the muck at the bottom of a stream can digest certain pollutants before they well up into the water, a new study finds.

Scientists have determined that microbes in sediment can dispose of methyl tertiarybutyl ether (MTBE) and tertiarybutyl alcohol (TBA). The two compounds are commonly added to gasoline to reduce vehicle emissions of carbon monoxide, an air pollutant. However, MTBE and TBA contaminate drinking water supplies in various ways, and the Environmental Protection Agency has classified MTBE as a possible human carcinogen.

The new finding should help environmental engineers more accurately assess the threat posed to streams by MTBE, says James E. Landmeyer. He, Paul M. Bradley, and Francis H. Chapelle, all of the U.S. Geological Survey in Columbia, S.C., report their findings in the June 1 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY.

"There has been considerable concern that this compound doesn't degrade," says Robert C. Borden of North Carolina State University in Raleigh. "If [the finding] turns out to be true, that would be very encouraging."

The USGS scientists looked at two sites in South Carolina where gasoline that contains MTBE had leaked from underground storage tanks. The researchers took sediment from nearby streambeds to their lab for testing.

They added radioactively labeled MTBE and TBA to the samples and traced the breakdown of the compounds into carbon dioxide. Over about 3 months, organisms--probably bacteria--in the sediment degraded up to 73 percent of the MTBE and 84 percent of the TBA. …

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