For years, the government and environmentalists have been working to reduce lead exposure in the environment. Lead can cause developmental damage to children and cause other health problems. The government banned lead in gasoline. It banned lead shot in shotgun shells. There are efforts to get rid of lead sinkers in fishing tackle. And now, environmentalists are trying to ban lead weights used to balance wheels. And some companies and fleet operators seem willing to comply. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Julie Halpert has the story about the move to a less hazardous alternative:
For years, the government and environmentalists have been working to reduce lead exposure in the
environment. Lead can cause developmental damage to children and cause other health problems. The
government banned lead in gasoline. It banned lead shot in shotgun shells. There are efforts to get rid of lead
sinkers in fishing tackle. And now, environmentalists are trying to ban lead weights used to balance wheels.
And some companies and fleet operators seem willing to comply. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Julie
Halpert has the story about the move to a less hazardous alternative:
When you buy a new car or get your tires replaced, manufacturers use lead weights, which clip onto the wheel
rim to make sure it’s evenly balanced. They use lead, because it’s heavy, dense. So a small amount by
volume is used.
Still, a few ounces of lead can be used on each wheel. And nearly every car and truck on the road has lead
weights. They’re the second largest use of lead in cars, next to lead acid batteries.
As long as the weights stay on the tires, they’re not a huge problem. But environmentalists are worried that
they come off too often. Many fall off when a car hits a pothole or collides with a curb. Then they’re run
over, ground down and get into the environment.
Each year, roughly 30-million pounds of lead are used to make wheel weights. A recent study estimates that
more than 300 tons of lead fall off vehicles each year in the Midwest alone. Jeff Gearhart is with the Ecology
Center which conducted that study.
“Many people don’t realize there’s a lot of lead in vehicles for this particular use and this is actually a fairly
small percentage of that lead actually falls off. But when you look at it as quantity, it’s pretty significant.”
The weights don’t just pose a problem on the road. Gearhart says there’s also danger when they’re not
properly recycled when new tires are put on and the weights are replaced. Another problem is when a car is
scrapped and then later when the parts are melted down, the lead can be released into the environment.
“Lead wheel weights are not managed very well as vehicles are scrapped and the difficulty in correcting the
management of these at the end of a life in a salvage yard or in a vehicle crusher or a shredder is very
He says the solution is to make sure lead is not used in the first place. Concerned about lead’s potential
health effects, Europe has already decided to ban lead wheel weights starting next year. And Gearhart is
pushing manufacturers who design for the U.S. market to do the same. He says substitute materials, such as
zinc, iron and tin, are readily available and work just as well as lead.
And with funding from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Ecology Center is making lead-free weights
available to those who service vehicle fleets.
(sound of weights being hammered onto wheel rims)
At the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan’s garage, a technician is banging zinc weights onto wheels. Tom
Gibbons helps manage this fleet of 400 city vehicles. Ann Arbor is the first city to switch to lead-free
“We realize lead is a problem in the environment and in the city, we’re really concerned about the
environment. We’re committed to doing as much as we can to protect it, so if we can take lead out of the
system, why not do it.”
Gibbons says the substitutes work just as well as lead weights. He says once the Ecology Center’s free
supply of weights runs out, the city will began buying non-lead weights, even though they’ll cost slightly
But not everyone agrees with the idea of using other materials for wheel weights. Daimler/Chrysler doesn’t
plan to switch to lead-free weights for its U.S. models. The company is concerned the substitutes are costlier
and more difficult to install on wheels.
Other automakers are looking at eliminating the use of lead weights. Terry Cullum is with General Motors.
He agrees they’re currently an issue, but says the Ecology Center’s estimate of the number of weights that fall
off cars seems high to him. And, he says there’s no imminent danger to the public.
“I think if you look at this from a risk-based situation, we don’t view lead being used in wheel weights
applications as a risk, well, as a large risk, let’s put it that way.”
Even so, General Motors is considering moving to lead free weights. Cullum says that everywhere the
automaker uses lead is a concern. And since the company will have to stop using lead weights on the cars and
trucks it sell in Europe, he says it might be easier just to take them out of all GM vehicles. Still, Cullum says
the substitutes present a big engineering challenge: because they’re not as dense. It takes bigger pieces of
metal to make the same weight. So, they take up more space on the wheel than lead weights.
“It becomes an issue, in terms of where do you put it on the wheel, how do you do it in such a way that it
doesn’t actually interfere with the actual operation of the wheel or the brake systems. That is an issue that is
going through research and engineering right now.”
But Cullum’s optimistic that the issue can be addressed. And other auto makers, such as Honda, are forging
ahead with lead-free weights on at least one of their model.
Still there’s resistance from U.S. tire retailers. The Tire Industry Association says the weights don’t fall off
wheels. And the tire retailers say the lead weights are properly recycled. The group has no plans to stop
using lead weights if they’re not legally required to.
Jeff Gearhart with the Ecology Center says that denial of the problem is a big mistake. He says if
manufacturers and tire retailers cooperated, they could get a substantial amount of lead out of the
environment within a few years.
“There is the potential to make a really significant impact here. We’re talking hundreds of tons of lead
released into the U.S. to the environment that can be eliminated. So we think this is a high priority project,
not just for us, but we think it will be for states and for EPA to look at how to facilitate this transition to
cleaner wheel balancing.”
The Environmental Protection Agency is starting to look at the issue. It plans to conduct a study within the
next year to get a better understanding of the problem and see how lead weights are handled. Then, they’ll
issue guidelines for consumers and tire recyclers late next year. That means the public will be more aware of
the use of lead wheel weights and the potential for toxic exposure. Usually, that means public pressure for
change, whether some automakers and tire retailers like it or not.
For The Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Julie Halpert.