Legal Action Cites Chrysler, Producers for Continuing Use of Lead-Based Wheel Weights

Public Health Watchdog Says Automotive Wheel Weights Pose Pollution Threat to California Drinking Water

Oakland, CA – The Center for Environmental Health today initiated legal action to stop the sale of lead-based wheel weights in the state of California, due to the threat of lead pollution to the state's waterways from wheel weights that fall from cars and trucks. The Center notified the major producers of wheel weights and Chrysler, a leading auto maker, that the lead-based weights are illegal under state's safe drinking water law. While other auto makers have eliminated or are moving away from the use of lead wheel weights, Chrysler continues to use the lead-polluting product for most of its new U.S. car models.

"Lead from wheel weights poses a threat to safe, clean drinking water in California," said Caroline Cox, Research Director for the Center for Environmental Health and author of the Center's report released today, Polluted Highways, Poisoned Waters: Lead in Wheel Balancing Weights. "Since affordable, effective alternatives exist, there is no excuse for the continued use of lead that can end up as a water hazard to people and the environment."

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." CEH estimates that approximately 500,000 pounds of lead was released into the environment in California in 2006 as a result of wheel weights being ejected from automobile wheels.

The Ecology Center, based in Ann Arbor Michigan, has worked for several years to expose the problem of lead wheel weights and advocate for alternatives, and has developed a list of new cars made with lead-free wheel weights (http://www.leadfreewheels.org/models.shtml ).  "Many automakers have eliminated or are phasing-out the use of lead wheel weights, but most tires in the U.S. are still balanced with toxic lead," said Jeff Gearhart, Auto Project Campaign Director of The Ecology Center. "In Europe and Asia, lead wheel weights have been replaced to protect people and the environment from unnecessary lead exposures. There's no reason we should have lesser standards for protecting Americans from lead pollution."

In 2005, the Ecology Center petitioned EPA, calling for a federal ban on lead wheel weights. The petition was supported by the states of Maine and Minnesota. Maine's comments in support of the petition noted that state water quality data showed that lead levels in runoff from many roadsides and parking lots exceeded safe limits established by the state.

While lead pollution prevention advocates and regulators have called for ending the use of lead wheel weights, the Tire Industry Association has resisted change, and testing earlier this year by the Ecology Center found no Chrysler models with lead-free wheel weights. But lead wheel weights are being phased out in Japan and Korea, and have been banned in Europe, and even the tire industry trade publication Tire Review Online acknowledged that "Europe moved smoothly to lead-free [wheel weights for their] vehicles."

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 also 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. Robert Root, the author of the study, says of today's action, "I am hopeful that California will pave the way to ridding the nation of this potential major source of urban lead exposure."

In addition to Chrysler, CEH today sent legal notices to the following leading makers of lead wheel weights: Hennessy Industries of Bowling Green, KY, a subsidiary of Danaher Corporation of Washington, DC; Perfect Equipment, Inc. of La Vergne, TN; and Plombco of Valleyfield, Quebec, Canada. In response to the growing demand from automakers, all three wheel weight producers also market lead-free wheel weights, sometimes touting the environmental benefits of the lead-free product. Plombco, for example, advertises its "New Lead-Free Wheel Weights" as "an environmentally safe alternative to lead."

"These companies know that lead is unsafe, yet they continue to sell lead-based wheel weights that can end up in our kids' drinking water" said Charlie Pizarro, Associate Director of CEH. "We intend to change this irresponsible corporate behavior and eliminate this hidden poison in California."

CEH initiated legal action today under California's "Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986," commonly known as Prop 65. The nonprofit has a ten-year track record of using Prop 65 to stop toxic air emissions from polluting facilities 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.

Click here for the CEH report, "Polluted Highways, Poisoned Waters: Lead in Wheel Balancing Weights