Experimental exposure to methyl tertiary-butyl ether. II. Acute effects in humans

Toxicol Appl Pharmacol. 1998 Feb;148(2):281-7. doi: 10.1006/taap.1997.8342.


Methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE) is widely used in gasoline as an oxygenate and octane enhancer. Acute effects, such as headache, nausea, and nasal and ocular irritation, have been associated with the exposure to gasoline containing MTBE. The aim of this study was to assess acute health effects up to the Swedish occupational exposure limit value, both with objective methods and a questionnaire. Ten healthy male volunteers were exposed to MTBE vapor for 2 h at three levels (5, 25, and 50 ppm), during light physical work (50 W). All subjects rated the degree of irritative symptoms, discomfort, and CNS effects before, during, and after all three exposure occasions using a questionnaire. Answers were given on a 100-mm visual analog scale, graded from "not at all" to "almost unbearable." Ocular (redness, tear film break-up time, self-reported tear film break-up time, conjunctival epithelial damage, and blinking frequency) and nasal (mouth and nasal peak expiratory flow, acoustic rhinometry, biochemical inflammatory markers, and cells in nasal lavage) measurements were performed mainly at the highest exposure level. The ratings of solvent smell increased dramatically (ratings up to 50% of the scale) as the volunteers entered the chamber and declined slowly with time (p < 0.05, repeated-measures ANOVA). All other questions were rated from "not at all" to "hardly at all" (0-10% of the scale) with no significant relation to exposure. The eye measurements showed no effects of MTBE exposure. Blockage index, a measure of nasal airway resistance calculated from the peak expiratory flows, increased significantly after exposure; however, the effect was not related to exposure level. In addition, a nonsignificant tendency of decreased nasal volume was seen in the acoustic rhinometry measurements, but with no clear dose-effect relationship. In conclusion, our study suggests no or minimal acute effects of MTBE vapor upon short-term exposure at relatively high levels.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Controlled Clinical Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Air Pollutants / adverse effects*
  • Airway Resistance / drug effects
  • Atmosphere Exposure Chambers
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Exercise
  • Eye Diseases / chemically induced*
  • Gasoline / adverse effects
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Maximum Allowable Concentration
  • Methyl Ethers / adverse effects*
  • Middle Aged
  • Odorants
  • Peak Expiratory Flow Rate / drug effects
  • Rhinitis / chemically induced
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Sweden


  • Air Pollutants
  • Gasoline
  • Methyl Ethers
  • methyl tert-butyl ether