Car (left) and the coho killing chemical (right). (Source: KGW video stills)

Every once in a while the news cycle will hit me over the head with the simple fact that cars are the most violent and destructive force in our society. They enable drive-by shootings, smash-and-grab thefts, rage-induced violence, social isolation, inhumane urban sprawl, and so many other terrible things.

Now the story I can’t get out of my head is the one about how the rubber used in car tires is responsible for mass die-offs of Coho salmon in the Pacific Northwest. This isn’t a new story, but it was just covered this week by local NBC station KGW. I admit that I didn’t take time to let this story sink in until it was covered in-depth by a local outlet. Now I can’t stop thinking about it.

If this new to you, here’s the gist (via KGW):

[Scientists] discovered a toxin called 6PPD-quinone produced when the common tire preservative 6PPD mixes with oxygen. As tires age, the rubber starts to peel off leaving bits and pieces in their path. When it rains anything that doesn’t soak into soil becomes stormwater pollution, eventually ending up in local waterways where every fall Coho salmon return to spawn.

(Source: US Tire Manufacturers Assocation)

I’m no expert, but I can tell from a cursory bit of research that the science around this finding is not in dispute. It is 100% clear that little bits of car tires (and other major rubber sources) are killing coho and damaging our water sources. The fact that there isn’t more urgency around the issue is not surprising, since most people have accepted every other negative trade-off that comes with our car-centric system.

The responses to the problem are very telling. There’s a lot of talk about how to make the tires less toxic and about the need for tougher environmental regulations for makers and sellers of them. What about the tire industry? They can’t refute the science (although I’m sure they have tried), so they’ve got websites and other PR messaging to keep the profits coming. They admit the chemical they use, 6PPD, kills fish and pollutes streams and rivers, but they want you to know that it also keeps drivers safe (see image at right). And hey, it makes your tires last longer so you save money! Isn’t that great? Dead fish be damned.

Unfortunately, most of the news stories I’ve read about this mass coho die-off never mention the one thing that would solve it: less driving and/or bans on driving in watersheds. (And last time I checked, electric car tires have tires too.)

Another innocent victim of car dependency. (Photo: Puget Sound Institute)

This is an immense problem that will take decades to solve if we go about it through the standard procedure of incremental reforms. It’s the duty of policymakers and city leaders to muster the political support and courage to quicken the pace of change. If we address the root problem of car dependency and driving abuse, we can save much more than coho.


— Learn more about 6PPD and 6PPD-Quinone at PugetSoundInstitute.org.





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