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Wearing safety goggles, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe (far left), Congresswoman Marilyn Strickland and Congressman Derek Kilmer watch Dr. Ed Kolodziej as he demonstrates the innovative methods researchers at UW Tacoma’s Center for Urban Waters used to identify tire derivative 6PPD-quinone as a killer of coho salmon. Photo by Jeff Rice.

Ed Kolodziej among finalists for Frontiers Planet Prize

Puget Sound Institute affiliate Dr. Ed Kolodziej is one of 20 finalists for the prestigious Frontiers Planet Prize honoring “impactful research breakthroughs” in global sustainability science.

Kolodziej was selected by an international jury as the United States representative earning him the title of National Champion and advancing him to compete for a prize of one million Swiss francs (about $1.1 million dollars) to support future research. Recipients of the award will be announced on April 27th in Montreux, Switzerland. The prize is sponsored by the Frontiers Research Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Switzerland focusing on high-impact scientific solutions for global environmental issues. Finalists were chosen from a pool of 233 universities across six continents. Over 40 universities submitted candidates in the United States.

The honor recognizes Kolodziej and the coho mortality research team for their pioneering contribution to the discovery of 6PPD-quinone, a highly toxic derivative of automobile tires that is killing coho salmon and has emerged as a potential danger to other species including humans. Kolodziej led a team of researchers at the University of Washington Tacoma (UWT) and Washington State University-Puyallup, among others, that discovered the previously unidentified compound which is now the focus of research around the world.

“I am honored to represent the United States and very proud that the excellent team of people working on this project, many of whom have dedicated years of sustained effort to this problem, got this recognition.” Kolodziej said.

The discovery reflects collaborators at NOAA-NMFS, the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, the University of Toronto, and other organizations. Researchers have known since the 1980s that Puget Sound coho will often become sick when entering urbanized Puget Sound streams and more than half can sometimes die before spawning.

Tires became a leading suspect by 2017 as Dr. Jenifer McIntyre (Washington State University-Puyallup) demonstrated their toxicity to coho salmon, but the actual chemical responsible remained unknown until a discovery in 2020 at the UWT Center for Urban Waters. Scientists (Dr. Zhenyu Tian) in Kolodziej’s lab used cutting edge chemical analysis to identify the chemical as a transformation product of 6PPD, a preservative used in all tires.

Shown here Edward Kolodziej (left), an associate professor in both the UW Tacoma Division of Sciences & Mathematics and the UW Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering; Jenifer McIntyre (right), an assistant professor at WSU School of the Environment in Puyallup; and Zhenyu Tian (background), a research scientist at the Center for Urban Waters at UW Tacoma, are at Longfellow Creek, an urban creek in the Seattle area. Credit: Mark Stone/University of Washington

The discovery set off a shock wave in the tire industry and has led to calls to change the chemical ingredients of tires toward non-toxic compounds. 6PPD-quinone is now recognized as perhaps the second most lethal compound to sensitive aquatic organisms, Kolodziej said, and researchers have since found it in all types of environments throughout the world. The chemical can be dispersed through the dust and residue of tire wear particles that wash into waterways or dissipate into the air we breathe. It is also found in recycled tires used in crumb rubber play fields and other products.

“It’s not just out in the environment, but it’s in our bodies, too,” said Kolodziej. “This isn’t just an ecosystem problem. We’re also exposed or probably breathing it into our lungs as little bits of tire dust,” he said. Recent studies showed 60 to 100% detection frequency of 6PPD-quinone in human urine, although the potential effect of the chemical on human health is still unknown.

Kolodziej will visit Switzerland later this month to meet with other National Champions and attend the award ceremony.

Keynote speakers at the event will include:

• Ban Ki-moon, former Secretary-General, United Nations (South Korea)
• Al Gore, Vice President and Nobel Laureate (USA)
• Jane Goodall, Founder, Jane Goodall Institute (USA)
• Seth Berkley, Chief Executive Officer, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance (Switzerland)
• Prof Johan Rockström, Director, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (Germany)
• Yuval Noah Harari, historian and author, Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Israel)
• Britt Wray, Lead, Special Initiatives, Climate & Mental Health, Stanford University (USA)
• Kevin Esvelt, Associate Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (USA)
• Laurent Wehrli, Member of the National Council of Switzerland (Switzerland)

Kolodziej said he hopes the National Champion honor will raise awareness of the widespread pollution on roadways and the need to develop more environmentally friendly “salmon safe” automobile tires. “I see this as recognition that tire rubber is an unexpectedly large source of pollution. It shows that we need to change how our tires are made and how we are thinking about roadway runoff.”

Among other research, Kolodziej said that the research team is now setting their sights on identifying chemicals that might be used in less toxic tires. “There’s a massive lack of data on all these industrial chemicals,” he said. “And those data gaps need to be filled to manage roadway pollution and develop tires that are safe for both people and fish.”

Research to manage and understand 6PPD-quinone and replace 6PPD with a non-toxic alternative will need more funding, he says, something that has remained a challenge despite the high-profile interest in the research teams’ discoveries.

Ask a scientist

We spoke with Dr. Kolodziej about the recognition and some of the next steps for this research.

Did you have any idea when you started this research where it might lead?

I can’t say I would have predicted this. It was clear to many people that something important was going on with coho salmon and roadway runoff and that it needed attention and effort. But none of us had any idea where this research would end up going.

Where’s the research taking your team now?

I think we have two big questions to focus on. One: What types of pollution are generated by the chemicals we’re using in tires? We don’t often know what’s in tires and what those chemicals are doing to the ecosystem. Two (and maybe even more important): What are we going to replace 6PPD with? Tires need chemical preservatives. That makes them safe to drive on and use. But that same chemical preservative is highly toxic to fish. What is an environmentally safe tire? Basically, all the tires in the world need to be changed, and soon! My team hopes to help understand these questions as the global community works to fix roadway runoff pollution.

How will you do that?

We can do that by understanding the environmental fate and toxicity and potential for biological harm in the types of chemicals used as tire preservatives. There’s a massive lack of data on all these chemicals even though they are almost everywhere. And those data gaps need to be filled.

What are some of the broader concerns that people can take away from this research?

I believe that the chemicals that we’re using to build tires should be public knowledge. Currently, those ingredients are protected as confidential business information. That really limits our ability to understand if they’re safe, not just for ecosystems but also for humans. Really, we shouldn’t be surprised when something toxic turns up because nobody was allowed to look in the first place.

We also need to better measure the amount of tire pollution and where all these little bits of tire rubber are going. Big delivery companies like Amazon or FedEx are probably some of the largest sources of toxic tire rubber pollution in the world and yet nobody knows much about that or what to do about it. Nobody is measuring that. We need to understand where our tires and their chemicals go when we use them and dispose of them.

What’s your biggest need right now?

We need people to care. We need funding and support! Work like this takes time, effort, and skill and there are massive data and expertise needs. We’ve done well replacing our equipment, and I’m very thankful for that. That’s awesome. But we also need to build the human staff and the human capability to fill these data gaps and answer these questions. My lab only has 3-4 people right now although everyone wants our time and expertise to find these important answers.