Particles From Tire Wear Can End Up in the Vegetables We Eat, Study Suggests

The scientists say this discovery shines a light on potential health risks to humans.

While driving on the road, vehicle tires wear down, releasing potentially toxic substances.

These substances get washed off the road by rain and are spread in the environment by the wind.

Scientists from the University of Vienna discovered that lettuce grown in a hydroponic solution that contained tire wear chemicals took up these substances in their roots and leaves.

They say more research is needed to determine if lettuce growing in natural dirt would show the same result.

Vehicle tires produce particles that are expelled into the environment as the tire wears. These particles contain potentially toxic organic chemicals that are washed off the roads by rain and migrate to the land alongside roadways. Eventually, these chemicals can end up in agricultural fields. Yet, it’s unclear if plant roots and leaves take up these substances.

If they do, that may indicate that some vegetables on dinner plates could contain these pollutants.

Scientists from the Centre for Microbiology and Environmental Systems Science (CMESS) at the University of Vienna sought to answer that question by determining if lettuce plants could absorb particles and chemicals released from tires. The team’s previous research found small plastic or tire particles in the upper soil layers.

In a press release, corresponding author Thilo Hofmann said, “if these chemicals are released in the root zone of edible plants, they can be a

health concern for consumers – provided the chemicals are taken up by the plants.”

Their research appears in Environmental Science & Technology.

To investigate if these particles could then migrate into crops, the researchers added five different chemicals — four used in tire production — to the water-based growing solutions of lettuce plants.

Although not all are considered harmful, one of the chemicals is a toxic byproduct of another chemical created when tires are in use on the road.

After the lettuce grew in the solution for 14 days, the scientists analyzed the roots and leaves using high-resolution mass spectrometry methods. They found that the lettuce took up all the compounds studied — including those considered toxic.

"Our measurements showed that the lettuce plants took up all the compounds we investigated through their roots, translocated them into the lettuce leaves, and accumulated them there"

Anya Sherman, Ph.D.

In addition, the team also identified the substances produced when the plants metabolized the chemicals.

“The plants processed the substances and in doing so they produced compounds that have not been described before. Since we don't know the toxicity of these metabolites, they pose a health risk that cannot be assessed so far,” Thorsten Hüffer, senior scientist at CMESS, said in the press release.

In further studies, the research team plans to follow the pathways that tire-wear pollutants might take from the tire to the road and, eventually, to crops. They also plan to investigate whether lettuce can uptake these chemicals when grown in natural soil.

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