The Sound of Science - 'Tire Particles'

Jan 17, 2020

Jeremy: Welcome to the Sound of Science on WNIJ. I’m Jeremy from NIU STEM Outreach, and I’m here with my colleague Sam.

Sam: We have a question from a long-time STEM supporter, Gary.

Gary: Hi, I'm Gary and I live in Sycamore. I would like to know: what happens to all the rubber that wears off tires? Where does it go? I don't see it laying along the side of the road.

NIU STEM Outreach

Sam: Our car tires are more than just rubber; they have a lot of petrochemicals and heavy metal additives to affect the friction and lifespan of the tire. As we drive, the concrete and asphalt peel off tiny particles from the tires.

Jeremy: These particles are so small they have a scientific classification. Some can be a PM 10, which means they are particulate matter 10 micrometers wide. These are too small to see or feel and fine enough that they can mix with the air. We can easily inhale 10 milligrams of PM10 particles in a year. Luckily, much more than that can get stopped by our mucus and nose hairs.

Sam: A much more dangerous particle is the dreaded PM2.5. These are 2.5 micrometers wide and easily slip by our body’s natural defenses. These are so small they get deep into our lungs and sometimes are picked up by our bloodstream.

Jeremy: In the short-term, these road particles can cause lung inflammation and shortness of breath. But over time, they cause reduced lung function, shorter life expectancy, higher occurrences of hospitalization, and there are even some cognitive links such as increased risk of Alzheimer’s.

Sam: These particles don’t just directly affect humans though. Tire particulates are one of the leading sources of microplastics. The particles that do end up back on the road are easily washed away into streams, lakes, and oceans. Microplastics will eventually end up in every link of an ecosystem’s food chain.

Jeremy: Microplastic pollution is only now getting a foothold in the public eye, and tire particles are a relatively new area of research. The easiest ways to pitch in is to drive less and get involved in conversations at local and state levels.

Sam: If you have a tough question you want answered, email us at One more message from Gary...

Gary: I love the Sound of Science on WNIJ, it's a wonderful program!

Jeremy: This is the Sound of Science on WNIJ.

Sam: Where you learn something new every day.