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Many of us do our best to protect the environment, whether it’s recycling, buying sustainable products, using non-toxic chemicals, or driving a fuel-efficient car. However, despite our best efforts, it can be challenging to follow the mantra of “do no harm” when it comes to the environment. Recently, studies revealed that car tires are more harmful than previously realized. Tires shed tiny particles that cause water pollution.

Studies at Oregon State University show that tire particles pollute the water and harm ecosystems

Car tire and sunset, showing how tire particles that shed cause water pollution
Car tire | Robert Klank via Unsplash

Earlier this year, researchers from Oregon State University published two studies showing that tiny particles shed from tires likely harm freshwater and coastal estuary ecosystems. The first study identified the harmful effects of tire particle pollution on organisms from coastal estuaries. The second study found the same harmful effects on freshwater organisms. 

These studies are the result of growing concern about the adverse effects on the environment of tire particles and other microplastics and nanoplastics, as reported by The World Economic Forum. While tire particle pollution was previously suspected, these are the first major studies that have the science to provide greater clarity on the issue.

OSU professor Stacey Harper, who led the freshwater study, said, “The focus on microplastics and now nanoplastics is still relatively new. We’re now at the point of making policy decisions that we don’t have the science for. That’s why we are scrambling to supply that science.” 

How do car tires cause water pollution?

Tire on a blue car, highlighting how tire particles that shed pollute the water and harm the environment
Car tire | Freddy G via Unsplash

Rubber tires are an essential component of cars and other forms of modern transportation. However, tires also shed. During the lifespan of tires, they shed as they roll many miles on roads and highways, travel over gravel, and pound over potholes and broken concrete. On average, tires lose around 30% of their tread.

And the tread that tires shed includes materials such as synthetic rubber, oils and other additives, and filing agents. These materials from tires join with all of the other synthetic materials that pollute the environment. According to a 2017 study, “1.5 million metric tons of tire particles enter the U.S. environment every year.” Also, the same study calculated that “tire particles account for 5-10% of ocean plastic pollution.”

Tire particle pollution contributes to both nanoplastic and microplastic pollution. Nanoplastics are smaller than a micrometer, while microplastics are smaller than 5 millimeters. The harmful effects of tire pollution on aquatic organisms, as revealed by the studies, include hindering growth and altering swimming behavior.

Tire particle pollution could also contaminate the water supply and adversely affect humans

The studies didn’t address how tire particle pollution might contaminate the water supply and adversely affect humans. However, there’s reason to believe that it does. Nanoplastics and microplastics contaminate the entire planet — from the depths of the ocean to the summit of Mount Everest.

A study commissioned by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) showed that, on average, we ingest about one credit card’s worth of plastic a week. 

More research is needed to accurately assess the health consequences of ingesting nanoplastics and microplastics. However, a study published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials revealed that microplastics cause damage to human cells.

Solutions to address the water pollution problem

The authors of the OSU tire particle pollution study also offered several solutions to address the problem. This includes:

  • Install devices on cars that catch tire particles
  • On roadsides, install rain gardens to catch tire particles before they enter the environment
  • Design car tires that last longer
  • Build more public transit infrastructure so that there are fewer cars on the road causing tire pollution

The findings of the OSU tire particle pollution study have dire implications for the environment, whether it’s the damage to ecosystems or contamination of the water supply. The suggestions by the OSU authors are helpful first steps to address the problem. Another way could be to build car tires with more sustainable materials. Also, it would be beneficial to design tires that shed less during their lifespan.


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