Biological Sciences Researchers Study Tire and Road Wear Pollutants in Kent Campus Stormwater Wetlands

When driving in the rain, it is unlikely that you have thought much about how the environment is affected, let alone how nearby aquatic sources are impacted. With funding from the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a biogeochemistry research team at Kent State University decided to look into the particles that were formed and transported from tires and the road.

Tabitha Ludwiczak, who worked extensively on the project, graduated with a BS in Zoology in Spring 2022
In their research, David Costello, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, and his team looked at how particles that emerge from the traction between tires and the road have flowed into some of the water sources on the Kent campus.

Kylie Piazza, a student writing intern in the College of Arts and Sciences conducted a brief Q&A with Dr. Costello who has done significant research on the human effects of stream ecosystems.

Q: What did you and your lab team investigate regarding tire road wear particles in stormwater? Was this research done on campus? How?

A: Tire and road wear particles (TRWP) are a type of microplastic that can be a pollutant in ecosystems. As the name suggests, TRWP comes from car and truck tire wear and thus are commonly found on road surfaces and next to roads. When it rains, these particles may be transported with run-off downstream to aquatic ecosystems. 

Our team was measuring how much TRWP is being transported from parking lots and roads (Summit St. and Campus Center Dr.) into the Campus Center Water Quality Wetlands. These new wetlands were constructed in 2019 with the Summit St. redesign. Importantly, the University Architects Office involved researchers in the planning stage and the final designs included infrastructure for water quality sampling. So, we could easily install an automated water sampler in the inflow, and this sampler triggers when it rains and pumps runoff water into sample bottles. The installation was easy because we had help and expertise from Shawn Danno and Jeremy Luli of University Facilities Management (UFM) who went into the storm sewer to install our equipment. We collected water samples during the summer and fall of 2021 and after each storm we collected the water samples, filtered out the particles, and measured TRWP. We also collected the mud from the bottom of the wetland to see if there was TRWP stored in the wetland. Our methods included mixing all the solids in a dense liquid that allows all the “light” particles like plastics to float on the surface where we could collect them. We then digested those light particles in acid and measured the zinc concentration. Zinc is an indicator of TRWP because zinc chemicals are used in the production of tires.

Tabitha Ludwiiczak (left) and former lab manager Nick Johnson work in the Costello lab in Cunningham Hall
Q: What did the TRWP research result in? How does it relate to your lab's focus on human activities on stream ecosystems?

A: In the mud, we found TRWP concentrations that were comparable or even a little higher than other road-side ponds. So even though the Campus Center Water Quality Basin is less than two years old, pollutants have already started to build up in the mud. We also found a lot of particles transported into the wetland following rain events. Interestingly, there were less particles in the run-off during the summer than during the fall after students returned. It’s possible that there were more particles in the fall due to the increased traffic volume on campus, but we need to take more samples. We don’t yet know how many of those particles in the runoff were TRWP, because we are waiting on another lab that is going to run an analysis that is much more sensitive than the Zn methods we can do in our lab.

Q: How does the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) use your research on TRWP?

A: The WBCSD is interested in understanding where in the environment TRWP is stored, how it moves around through ecosystems, and ultimately how much gets transported into the ocean. This group believes that most of the TRWP moves off road surfaces during precipitation events, but it is challenging to sample these events. The weather is unpredictable and “storm chasing” is logistically challenging. Having a research wetland five minutes from my lab on campus was a perfect place to study storms.

Q: What did the WBCSD grant funding provide?

A: Most of the funding went to hiring undergraduate researchers who could learn how the equipment works, collect samples, and do the lab analysis. Some of the funding also paid for consumables like the heavy liquid for the density separation and containers.

Q: Who all was involved from your lab and collaborators? Tell me a bit about your lab and its creation and its focus.

An automated water sampler was installed in the inflow, and this sampler triggers when it rains and pumps runoff water into sample bottles.
A: The main person doing this work was an undergraduate, Tabitha Ludwiczak, who did an individual investigation with me in Spring 2022. She was a senior at the time and graduated in May 2022. We also got help from researchers at UFZ in Germany who shared their protocols for measuring TRWP.

Broadly, my lab studies how human activities alter the way freshwater ecosystems work. We currently do a lot of work on contaminants like metals and excess nutrients but in the past we’ve worked on urbanization, invasive species, and nanoparticles. Most of our work is done in streams and we also do some experiments in artificial streams.

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Media Contact: 
Jim Maxwell, 330-672-8028, jmaxwel2@kent.edu

POSTED: Thursday, November 17, 2022 - 4:05pm
UPDATED: Tuesday, November 22, 2022 - 2:04pm
WRITTEN BY:
Kylie Piazza