The urban atmosphere as a non-point source for the transport of MTBE and other volatile organic compounds (VOCS) to shallow groundwater

James F. Pankow, Neil R. Thomson, Richard L. Johnson, Arthur L. Baehr, John S. Zogorski

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Infiltration and dispersion (including molecular diffusion) can transport volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from urban air into shallow groundwater. The gasoline additive methyl-tert-butyl ether (MTBE) is of special interest because of its (1) current levels in some urban air, (2) strong partitioning from air into water, (3) resistance to degradation, (4) use as an octane-booster since the 1970s, (5) rapidly increasing use in the 1990s to reduce CO and O3 in urban air, and (6) its frequent detection rat lOW microgram per liter levels in shallow urban groundwater in Denver, New England, and elsewhere. Numerical simulations were conducted using a l-D model domain set in medium sand (depth to water table = 5 m) to provide a test of whether MTBE and other atmospheric VOCs could move to shallow groundwater within the 10-15 y time frame over which MTBE has now been used in large amounts. Degradation and sorption were assumed negligible. In case 1 (no infiltration, steady atmospheric source), 10 y was not long enough to permit significant VOC movement by diffusion into shallow groundwater. Case 2 considered a steady atmospheric source plus 36 cm/y of net infiltration; groundwater at 2 m below the water table became nearly saturated with atmospheric levels of VOC within 5 y. Case 3 was similar to case 2, but considered the source to be seasonal being 'on' for only 5 of 12 months each year, as with the use of MTBE during the winter fuel-oxygenate season; groundwater at 2 m below the water table became equilibrated with 5/12 of the 'source-on' concentration within 5 y. Cases 4 and 5 added an evapotranspiration (ET) loss of 36 cm/y, resulting in no net recharge. Case 4 took the ET from the surface, and case 5 took the ET from the capillary fringe at a depth of 3.5 m. Net VOC mass transfer to shallow groundwater after 5 y was less for both cases 4 and 5 than for case 3. However, it was significantly greater for cases 4 and 5 than for case 1, even though cases 1, 4, add 5 were all no- net recharge cases. The mechanism responsible for this effect was the dispersion acting on each downward infiltration event, and also on the ET-induced flow. The ability of MTBE to reach groundwater in cases 2-5 is taken as evidence of the potential importance of urban air as a non-point source for VOCs in shallow urban groundwater. Two subcases were run for both case 4 and case 5: subcase a (water and VOCs move with ET) and subcase b (water only moves with ET).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2821-2828
Number of pages8
JournalEnvironmental Science and Technology
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 1997

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Chemistry(all)
  • Environmental Chemistry


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