Give a Hoot An Auto Antipollutant Pollutes

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The Environmental Protection Agency is doing an about-face. Acting on the recommendations of an advisory panel, the agency recommended on Tuesday that Congress significantly cut back its requirement that a smog-fighting ingredient be added to gasoline. The additive, M.T.B.E., is currently required in 16 heavily polluted states because it is an oxygenate that promotes more thorough burning of gasoline and thereby cuts down on air contaminants. The problem: M.T.B.E. dissolves easily in water when gasoline spills or leaks out, and laboratory tests suggest the ingredient may be a potential carcinogen. EPA administrator Carol Browner said Americans deserve "both cleaner air and cleaner water and never one at the expense of the other."

"This is a remarkable recommendation," say TIME Washington correspondent Dick Thompson. "This chemical is effective in cleaning up the air. In California alone its use had amounted to the equivalent of taking 4 million cars off the highways." Clearly, though, the trade-off on water pollution was not acceptable, particularly since it is estimated that some 9 million gallons of gasoline are spilled through accident or carelessness each year.