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Tyre pollution and health

Prioritise tackling toxic emissions from tyres, urge Imperial experts
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Pile of old used car tyres under a sky full of dark clouds

Imperial experts are calling for more to be done to limit the potentially harmful impact of toxic tyre particles on health and the environment.

The researchers, from Imperial College London’s Transition to Zero Pollution initiative, warn that even though electric vehicles remove the problem of fuel emissions, we will continue to have a problem with particulate matter because of tyre wear.

Understanding tyre wear

Six million tonnes of tyre wear particles are released globally each year; in London alone 2.6 million vehicles emit around nine thousand tonnes of tyre wear particles annually.  

Despite this, research on the environmental and health impacts of tyre wear has been neglected in comparison with the research and innovations dedicated to tackling fuel emissions.

The Imperial researchers say that the effect of new technologies on the generation and impact of tyre wear should be a priority.

‘Tyre wear particles pollute the environment, the air we breathe, the water run-off from roads and has compounding effects on waterways and agriculture. Even if all our vehicles eventually become powered by electricity instead of fossil fuels, we will still have harmful pollution from vehicles because of tyre wear. 

‘We urge policymakers and scientists to embark on ambitious research into tyre wear pollution to fully understand and reduce their impacts on biodiversity and health, as well as research to reduce the generation of these particles.’

Imperial’s Department of Mechanical Engineering

Manmade pollution

Transition to Zero Pollution is an Imperial College London initiative aiming to build new partnerships between research, industry and government to help realise a sustainable zero pollution future.

In a new briefing paper, a multidisciplinary group of Imperial experts including engineers, ecologists, medics and air quality analysts have called for as much investment into tyre wear research as there is for reducing fuel emissions – and for understanding their interactions. 

‘Safeguarding our planet and the health of future generations requires us to look not just at a problem from a single perspective, but to take a systems level approach. That’s why we need to look beyond just carbon and to consider human-made pollution in all its forms.

‘Electric vehicles are a crucial step forward to decarbonise transport, but we need to look at the big picture too. Some are concerned that electric vehicles tend to be heavier, which might increase tyre wear. This is exactly why Imperial College London is driving a holistic, joined-up approach to sustainability challenges. 

‘We will continue to leverage the full strength of our research and influence to find meaningful solutions and help realise a sustainable, zero pollution future.’

Vice Provost (Research and Enterprise) at Imperial College London, and a co-author on the briefing paper

Tyre wear particles

As tyres break down they release a range of particles, from visible pieces of tyre rubber to nanoparticles.

Large particles are carried from the road by rain into rivers, where they may leach toxic chemicals into the environment.

Smaller particles become airborne and breathed in; they are small enough to reach into the deep lung.  
These particles may contain a range of toxic chemicals including polyaromatic hydrocarbons, benzothiazoles, isoprene and heavy metals like zinc and lead.

Environmental effects

Particulate matter from tyre wear is a significant source of microplastics in rivers and oceans, and tyre wear in cities could pose up to a four-fold greater risk to the environment than other microplastics. 

While existing technological interventions (such as filters) and environmental policies could help to control our ecological footprint, there are huge gaps in our knowledge, understanding and ability to forecast the impacts of tyre wear pollution. 

‘Tyre waste does not naturally degrade and instead builds up in the environment, and may interact with other pollutants as well as biological organisms. Our gaps in understanding make further research and development of new solutions vital so we can limit all types of vehicular pollution.’

Co-author, from Imperial’s Department of Life Sciences

Tyre wear and human health

The impact of tyre wear particles on human health is an increasing cause for concern, and the researchers say the full long-term effects on our health urgently require more research. 

There is emerging evidence that tyre wear particles and other particulate matter may contribute to a range of negative health impacts including heart, lung, developmental, reproductive and cancer outcomes.

‘We are growing increasingly concerned by the impact of tyre wear on human health. As some of these particles are so small they can be carried in the air, it’s possible that simply walking on the pavement could expose us to this type of pollution. It is essential that we better understand the effect of these particles on our health.’

Co-author, Imperial’s National Heart and Lung Institute

Shifting gear

The researchers argue that reducing tyre pollution should be seen as a critical part of making transport cleaner and more sustainable, alongside reductions in CO2 and other exhaust emissions.

In tackling the climate crisis, we should design better systems and technologies to protect the environment – and research funding, government policy and regulatory frameworks should reflect this. 

The report authors call for policymakers and scientists to investigate the complex problems related to tyre-wear pollution, from the basics of wear-particle production, to understanding how these particles affect the health of people and the planet.

Potential innovation solutions include particle capture technologies, new advanced materials and disruptive business models that encourage different transport choices.

These need to be coupled to clear policy and regulation and to a broader discussion around urban transport systems.

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