Scientists and policymakers must do more to limit the potentially harmful impact of toxic tyre particles on human health and the environment, researchers from Imperial College London have said.

Particulate matter from tyre wear will continue to cause pollution from cars even if electric vehicles (EVs) are widely adopted, said the team from the university’s Transition to Zero Pollution initiative.

Each year, 6m tonnes of tyre wear particles are released globally. In London alone, 2.6m vehicles emit around 9,000 tonnes of tyre wear particles.

Large particles are carried by rain into rivers, where they can leach toxic chemicals into the environment, while smaller particles become airborne and are breathed in. The particles may contain a range of toxic chemicals, including polyaromatic hydrocarbons, benzothiazoles, isoprene, and heavy metals such as zinc and lead.

Despite this, research on the environmental and health impacts of tyre wear has been “neglected” in comparison to the research and innovations dedicated to tackling fuel emissions, the researchers said. The effect of new technologies on the generation and impact of tyre wear should be a priority, they added.

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

“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,” said lead author Dr Zhengchu Tan.

“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.”

Transition to Zero Pollution aims to build new partnerships between research, industry and government to help realise a ‘sustainable zero pollution future’.

Professor Mary Ryan, a co-author of the briefing paper, said: “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.”

Reducing tyre pollution should be seen as a critical part of making transport cleaner and more sustainable alongside reductions in carbon dioxide and other exhaust emissions, the researchers said.

“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,” an announcement said.

The report authors called for policymakers and scientists to investigate the complex problems related to tyre wear pollution, from the basics of wear particle production to how they affect the health of people and the planet. Potential solutions could include new advanced materials, ‘disruptive business models’ that encourage different transport choices, and particle capture technologies.

One such technology is already being trialled by a company formed by researchers who met at Imperial and the Royal College of Art. The Tyre Collective device is installed behind tyres to capture particles as they are generated, preventing them from escaping into the environment.

Extracted from IMechE website, read more here

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