By the end of 2015, only 11% of scrap tires produced in the US were going to landfills. 11% might sound small, but that’s still 460 thousand tons of tires going to waste (Source: Rubber Manufacturers Association). The costs of not recycling tires are great and come in a variety of unpleasant rubbery flavors. It’s such a serious issue, in fact, that many states have passed regulations on proper tire disposal, but a significant amount of illegal dumping and improper storage still occurs, which means that we haven’t quite eliminated that rubbery taste from society’s proverbial mouth.
Tire rubber makes great fuel because it can be burned, but that also makes it dangerous. While still flammable in shredded form, large numbers of whole scrap tires stored in one place present a much more serious fire hazard, because whole tires trap methane gas in a way that shreds don’t. Devastating tire fires have occurred so frequently that they’ve become a subject of list articles such as Web Ecoist’s “Burn Rubber: The World’s 9 Worst Tire Fires,” Mental Floss’s “5 Places That Are Still On Fire,” and our own blog’s recent post “Recycling Tires: A Lesson in Fire Prevention.”
When tires burn, they can burn for months, even years, and when cleanup is finally possible, it can take even longer than the fire itself. The Rhinehart Tire Fire in Virginia began in 1983 and reduced 7 million stored tires to free-flowing tar that contaminated the surrounding area and water supply. The disastrous mess couldn’t be fully cleaned up until 2002 (Source: Web Ecoist).
Toxic Chemicals and Pollution
Because tires are made of synthetic rubber, they are non-biodegradable, and their particular chemical makeup leads to the leaching of toxins into the ground and water. Research has yet to determine whether tires sitting in piles will leach enough chemicals (such as zinc oxide) to be dangerous, but disposing of tires by burning them rather than recycling them safely can have serious consequences for the environment.
One case occurred in Germany in 1988, where the Rhine River was found to contain abnormal levels of zinc due to the burning of tires (Source: California Integrated Waste Management Board). Even more ominously, openly burning tires releases mutagenic and carcinogenic compounds into the atmosphere.
Waste Tires, Pests, and Disease
Perhaps the least obvious danger tires pose when not recycled is disease. The diseases don’t come from the tires themselves, of course, but they do provide the right conditions. Mosquitoes will lay their eggs anywhere they can find stagnant water. After a summer rainstorm, old tires in illegal tire piles and landfills might as well be mosquito infirmaries, and it only takes from ten to fourteen days for mosquitoes to develop from egg to blood-sucking adult. Far beyond merely being a nuisance, mosquitoes are often vehicles of serious diseases.
Historically, the most deadly mosquito-borne disease has been malaria, and while there are still hundreds of millions of cases worldwide every year, effective treatments have all but eradicated it from developed countries like the US (Source: The American Mosquito Control Association). Other viruses carried by mosquitoes, like Chikungunya, Dengue, and Yellow Fever are also rare to nonexistent in the US, but there are a few that pose a clear threat.
At least four different strains of encephalitis have infected Americans: Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE), St. Louis Encephalitis (SLE), LaCrosse Encephalitis (LAC), and Western Equine Encephalitis (WEE), none of which have vaccines for human victims. SLE is transmitted from birds to humans by mosquitoes, but despite the lack of vaccine, no cases have been reported since 1997. Around 90 cases of LAC occur annually in eastern states, and it can be fatal to young children. WEE hasn’t had many modern cases. EEE is the most dangerous, as it attacks the central nervous system. Serious cases result in permanent brain damage, comas, and death.
West Nile Virus
Far deadlier and more widespread than the strains of encephalitis is West Nile Virus. Mild cases are difficult to distinguish from the flu, though the symptoms can last well over a month. More aggressive cases affect the nervous system in ways similar to encephalitis or meningitis. Originally appearing in North America in 1999, by 2014, over 36 thousand cases had been reported in the US. Half of those resulted in the more serious meningitis or encephalitis forms, and of those, 1,538 resulted in death (Source: AMCA).
These, however, are only the cases that have been reported. Because of the milder form’s similarity to common viral infections, the CDC estimates the true number of infections at 1.5 million. 2,039 cases were reported in 2016 (Source: US Geological Survey). No vaccine for West Nile Virus exists.
Although Zika has been around since the ‘40s, it was mostly limited to Africa until reaching South America in 2014, and then only became a major concern in the spring of 2016 (Source: AMCA). Like mild cases of West Nile, Zika may be underreported because of its resemblance to the flu (though it also lasts much longer). The real threat of Zika is its impact on developing fetuses. When an expectant mother is bitten by an infected mosquito, her baby can contract the virus too, resulting in microcephaly (a severely underdeveloped brain). Guillian-Barré, a condition that causes nerve damage, muscle weakness, and potentially paralysis and death, has also been linked to Zika. Cases in the continental US have been isolated and rare so far, but nearly 600 cases have been reported in US territories in the Caribbean.
Recycling tires is one of the easiest ways to keep mosquito populations under control so that diseases like these can’t spread.
EcoGreen is dedicated to providing tire recycling solutions that will help leave decades-long tire fires, soil and water pollution, and mosquito-borne viruses in the past. Contact our experts today to learn more about how we can help you and your company become part of the solution.