New research shows how brake and tire dust—a cloud of tiny metal particles—could wreak havoc on respiratory health.
Metals from brakes and other automotive systems enter the air as fine particles, lingering over busy roadways.
Although tailpipe emissions may fall as more zero-emission vehicles hit the streets, brake and tire dust, a major source of highway air pollution, shows no signs of abating.
In the journal Environmental Science & Technology, researchers describe how vehicle-emitted metals such as copper, iron, and manganese interact with acidic sulfate-rich particles already in the air to produce a toxic aerosol.
“There’s a chain reaction happening in the air above busy highways,” says Rodney Weber, a professor in the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences.
“Acidic sulfate in the atmosphere comes into contact with those metals emitted from traffic and changes their solubility, making them more likely to cause oxidative stress when inhaled.”
The study, which the National Science Foundation and the US Environmental Protection Agency sponsored, shows how the metals are emitted mainly in an insoluble form but slowly become soluble after mixing with sulfate.
“Sulfate has long been associated with adverse health impacts,” says Athanasios Nenes, a professor in the School of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences and the School of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering.
“The old hypothesis was that the acidic sulfate burns your lung lining, which in turn leads the bad health effects. But there is not enough acid in the air alone to really have that impact.”
But sulfate plays a key role in making metals soluble before they are inhaled, which could explain the association of sulfate with adverse health impacts, the researchers say.
Even electric cars
Dust from brakes and tires isn’t the only source of metals in the air. Incinerators and other forms of combustion also produce mineral dust and metallic particles, which could mix with sulfate to trigger a similar reaction.
The researchers note that while the amount of particulate sulfate in the southeastern United States has decreased during the past 15 years as sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants have fallen, there’s still enough acidic sulfate in the air to keep the pH of particles very low, in the range of 0 to 2, transforming insoluble ambient metals to a soluble form.
“Vehicle tailpipe emissions are going down, but these kinds of emissions from braking will remain to some extent, even if you drive an electric car,” Weber says.
“Therefore, this kind of process will continue to play out in the future and will be an important consideration when we look at the health effects of particulate matter.”
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News source: Georgia Institute of Technology. The content is edited for length and style purposes.
Figure legend: This Knowridge.com image is credited to Georgia Institute of Technology.