Chrysler, Wheel Weight Makers Agree to Eliminate Lead from Wheel Balancing Weights

Oakland, CA – The Center for Environmental Health (CEH) today announced it has reached a legal agreement with Chrysler and the three largest producers of automobile wheel balancing weights, requiring the companies to end the use of leaded wheel weights in California by the end of 2009. The Center applauds the companies for entering into this landmark agreement, which marks the first-ever legally binding requirement to phase out lead in wheel weights in the U.S. The settlement will end the annual release of 500,000 pounds of lead into the environment in California, which occurs when wheel weights break off of automobile wheels.

Last August, CEH launched its legal action against Chrysler, Perfect Equipment, Inc, Hennessey Industries, and Plombco Inc., due to the threat to the state's drinking water from wheel weights that fall from cars and trucks. "Wheel weights have been identified as the largest new route of lead releases into the environment," said Michael Green, Executive Director of CEH. "By moving the industry away from leaded wheel weights, we are helping to keep the lead out of our kids' drinking water." While the companies maintain that wheel weights do not pose an environmental threat, they have agreed to phase out their use of lead and are all now producing lead-free products as an environmentally safe alternative.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), about 65,000 tons of lead wheel weights are in use on cars and trucks in the U.S., and it is estimated that at least 3% of wheel weights fall off of cars and trucks. USGS states that the discarded wheel weights "drop to the road surface where they become abraded by vehicle traffic, eventually becoming dissipated into the environment by wind and storm water."

A peer-reviewed study in 2000 found that lead pollution from wheel weights "is continuous, significant, and widespread, and is potentially a major source of human lead exposure." The study noted that the highest rate of lead deposition likely occurs in urban areas, posing a significant lead poisoning threat to poor and minority populations that are already disproportionately impacted by other sources of lead.

Aftermarket repair shops still often use leaded weights when they balance auto wheels and/or replace tires. Last month, a Hennessey spokesperson told Tire Business that leaded wheel weights are still "the major part of our wheel weight business."  This will no longer be the case in California due to CEH's efforts.

The Ecology Center, based in Michigan, has worked for several years to expose the problem of lead wheel weights and advocate for alternatives, while running the web site http://www.leadfreewheels.org . "This settlement represents the beginning of the end for lead wheel balancing weights in the U.S.," said Jeff Gearhart, Research Director at the Ecology Center.  "We fully expect dozens of states to follow California's leadership and ban the use of lead wheel weights."

In 2005, the Ecology Center petitioned EPA under the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA), calling for a federal ban on lead wheel weights. Lead wheel weights have been banned in the EU since July 2005, and Japan and Korea are phasing them out. Yet EPA has refused to enact a ban, instead relying on voluntary industry action. "It is simply scandalous that three years after the rest of the world banned toxic lead weights, the U.S. continues to allow their use," said Gearhart.  "It's time to fix our failed regulatory system." A Hennessey spokesman recently stated that due to the price difference between lead and safer alternatives, "[I]t will be hard to change the market [to lead-free wheel weights] without legislation."

Washington, Maine and Massachusetts have considered such legislation, but the CEH settlement creates the first binding statewide ban on shipments from the major wheel weight suppliers. Some municipalities have eliminated lead wheel weights on their local fleets, and the U.S. Air Force and Postal Service have taken action to eliminate lead wheel weights from their fleets.

Under today's agreement, Plombco will end shipments of leaded wheel weights into California by the end of this year; Hennessey and Perfect Equipment agreed to end shipments by the end of 2009. Chrysler is now quickly phasing out the use of lead wheel weights nation-wide, due in part to CEH's action.  Also under the agreement, Chrysler is required to eliminate its use of leaded wheel weights on 55% of its automobiles by the end of July, and the company says it has already exceeded that goal. The settlement requires Chrysler to fully eliminate lead in wheel weights on cars intended for sale in California by July 31, 2009.

CEH has a ten-year track record of using California law to stop toxic water and air emissions and to protect children from hidden lead risks in consumer products, including vinyl baby bibs, lunchboxes, baby powders, children's medicines, imported candies, and metal and vinyl jewelry.

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