Environment
9:00 am
Thu November 10, 2011

States ban lead wheel weights

By Julie Grant for The Environment Report

The U.S. has worked to get lead out of gas and out of paint, but the biggest source of lead in a consumer product is still on roadways. It’s in the form of wheel weights, used to balance the tires on our cars. The Environmental Protection Agency says about 1.6 million pounds of lead fall off of vehicles each year, and it winds up in the environment. A handful of states is leading the effort to ban lead wheel weights.

If you notice a wobble or vibration when you’re driving, it could mean you’ve lost a wheel weight. Jeff Gearhart is a researcher with the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor. He says wheel weights are about the size of your pinky finger, and there are usually one or two of them for each tire.

“If you look at the rubber part of the wheel, then there’s a metal part, and if you look carefully, then you’ll see a clip-on weight.”

Gearhart isn’t a traditional car guy. He cares about wheel weights because in most states, they’re made with lead. Gearhart says it’s easy to bump a curb, and lose a wheel weight. The EPA says 13% of them fall off. On the roads, the weights get crushed into dust. He says the lead winds up in the soil, in drinking water and ground water.

“Lead’s a neurotoxin, leads to learning disabilities, lower IQ. We don’t know of any safe level of lead exposure in the environment.”

Gearhart says there’s an easy solution – switch from lead, to weights made from steel or zinc. He wants the Environmental Protection Agency to issue a federal ban on the lead weights.

But for now, about six states are getting the ban rolling. New York’s ban on lead wheel weights went into effect earlier this year.

Robert Pike owns an auto repair shop upstate. He was taken by surprise when his tire supplier told him he wasn’t allowed to keep lead around the shop anymore.

“Spent $1,500 to buy this new product, which is environmentally friendly. Which I am 100% for. But it was sprung on us like that…”

Pike says his new wheel weights are made with zinc. He and other repair shops say they’ve haven’t noticed much cost increase. But Pike says it makes more sense to ban lead wheel weights nationally, rather than state by state.

Jeff Gearhart at the Ecology Center says the private sector is already moving away from lead weights.

“We’ve worked with companies as large as Walmart, auto makers like Ford and GM, tire retailers around the country. All of these entities have been able to very successfully move toward lead free wheel balancing, some of them completely, in a way that has not in any significant way impacted the bottom line of their operations.”

Gearhart says American companies are already manufacturing both lead and non-lead weights - but they’d like to stop making the lead weights.

WHITE: “The biggest thing that they want, is for everything to be the same.”

Matt White owns an auto repair shop, and he’s also a spokesman for the Tire Industry Association. It represents everyone from tire manufacturers, to Walmart, to independent tire dealers.

Companies have to make wheel weights without lead, because there’s so much demand from other countries.

White says that means they have to maintain a variety of manufacturing processes.

“Right now, they’ve got people using lead weights, and they got people using steel weights, and they got people using zinc weights. So they really have to manufacture three different kinds of wheel weights to take care of everybody in the industry.”

White says his trade group is encouraging everyone in the tire industry to move toward non-lead wheel weights. But the tire industry group won’t go so far as to call for a federal ban on lead weights. A couple of years ago the U.S. EPA said it planned to write new rules on lead wheel weights, and the agency says a decision on that could come next year.