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Road traffic isn’t just bad for the air – it's potentially a major source of water pollution: U of T study

A new U of T Scarborough study finds that road traffic is linked to higher levels of nearby water pollution (photo by iStockphoto)

Heavy traffic is often associated with air pollution but a new study from the University of Toronto suggests it’s a major contributor to water pollution, too.

The study, published in the journal Environmental Research Lettersfound that chemicals commonly used in vehicle fluids, tires and paints were much higher in rivers next to roads with heavy traffic.  

“We found a strong relationship between traffic and the concentration of these chemicals,” says Tife Awonaike, a recent PhD graduate from the department of physical and environmental science at U of T Scarborough who is lead author of the study.

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Tife Awonaike is recent PhD graduate from U of T Scarborough (Submitted Photo)

“These roads also appear to be a major source of a surprisingly wide array of contaminants.”

For the study, a series of samples were collected in the watersheds fed by Mimico Creek (which runs through Brampton, Mississauga and Toronto) and Little Rouge Creek (which runs through Whitchurch-Stoufville, Markham, and Scarborough). The samples taken from Mimico Creek, located next to roads with heavier traffic, had higher levels for most of the detected contaminants.

Many of the 35 different contaminants that were found in the watersheds are from chemicals used in oils, lubricants, windshield de-icing fluids, tires, paints, coatings and vehicle furniture. They end up in nearby watersheds because when they are emitted onto road surfaces they can get washed into nearby streams when it rains either on their own or while attached to road dust. 

The researchers found that these contaminants are transported to watersheds in similar ways, suggesting they come from a single, predominant source – namely road surfaces.   

These are not contaminants we want in our water, say the researchers. For example, organophosphate esters, commonly added to materials as flame retardants, have been found to be toxic to aquatic organisms. Triphenyl phosphate – a type of organophosphate used in electronic equipment, vehicle interiors and upholstery – has been linked to neurotoxicity in fish.

Professor Frank Wania, who co-authored the study, says the contaminants contribute to what’s known as the “urban stream syndrome,” whereby rivers and watersheds are polluted from urban stormwater run-off. 

“Urban waters in general are not in good shape,” says Wania, an environmental chemist whose research looks at how different organic chemicals end up in the environment. “They’re really a soup of a whole slew of contaminants.”

He adds that even though researchers analyzed many chemicals as part of the study, it’s probably “only a fraction” of what’s in the water.

“Let’s put it this way – places like the Mimico Creek are not very healthy bodies of water, and it would be very difficult for a healthy aquatic ecosystem to exist there.”  

The study received funding the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

What can be done?

Switching to electric vehicles won’t be enough. While some contaminants are directly related to burning fossil fuels, others found in paints, coatings, tire particles and de-icing fluids are also used in electric vehicles.

Awonaike says many of the contaminants used to manufacture vehicles can only be controlled on a larger scale by regulatory agencies and governments. Regular street sweeping can help by collecting road dust before it gets flushed into waterways.

On an individual level, there are some activities that can help.

“Regular maintenance of your vehicle is important,” Awonaike says. “You can make sure to fix a leaky car or flaking paint chips.”

“You can also raise awareness about this issue. We don’t want these contaminants ending up in our water where they can do quite a bit of damage to aquatic ecosystems.”

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March 15, 2022

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