The Ecology Center recently released its second Lead-Free Wheels Survey of new vehicles. Lead wheel balancing weights represent one of the largest ongoing uses of lead in the world. The survey of new 2006/2007 model-year vehicles showed that while many automakers have aggressively phased out lead wheel balancing, some automakers have made no progress (Chrysler) and zero aftermarket tire retailers have committed to phasing out lead wheel weights.
"Lead wheel weights falling off cars and trucks is one of the last major, unregulated sources of lead pollution in the U.S.," said Jeff Gearhart, Campaign Director of the Ecology Center. "This survey shows that lead free wheel balancing is a cost effective way to reduce the use of lead in vehicles. Anyone who installs tires needs to get on the bandwagon."
Based on the results of the 2006 survey, the Ecology Center estimates that approximately 50% of the new cars sold in the U.S. at the end of 2006 had lead-free wheel weights. This accounts for approximately 68 million lead-free wheel weights on new cars in 2006. This represents a 79% increase over 2004 when the Ecology Center estimated 38 million wheel weight were installed on new vehicles. These weights eliminated the use of over 1,500 tons of lead on vehicles in the US. The results of the survey are available at http://www.leadfreewheels.org/models.shtml.
Gearhart called for an overhaul of U.S. chemical policy, stating "The sad reality is we now have new vehicles with lead-free weights that are reverting back to lead weight when their tires are replaced. EPA must step in and regulate the use of lead weights or the U.S. will continue to be the largest consumer of lead weights in the world."
The Ecology Center has called on all auto manufacturers and tire retailers to commit to phasing out the use of lead wheel-balancing weights in the U.S. by July 2006. Use of lead weights in Europe were banned as of July 2005, and U.S. production capacity currently exists to provide the lead-free alternatives.
On average, cars and light trucks use up to 10 of these weights, which are 1/2 to 6 inches in length. Recent studies have documented that on average 13% of wheel weights fall off vehicles during normal driving. One study estimates that 3.3 million pounds of lead per year are deposited on urban roads in the United States. Lead wheel weights are actually very soft and when they fall off a vehicle they are rapidly abraded by traffic into smaller pieces, scattered into the wind as dust, washed into storm sewers and waterways, and picked up by shoes, animal paws and bicycle tires. The EPA considers lead and lead compounds “persistent bioaccumulative toxic” (PBT) chemicals because of their toxicity and because they remain in the environment for long periods of time. Lead is especially dangerous to children and developing fetuses, even in very small amounts.