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EPA Balks on Banning Major Automotive Lead Use

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Lack of Action Assures that U.S. Will Be the Last Remaining Major Auto Market Using Lead Weights
August 15, 2005

For Immediate Release

Ann Arbor, Mich. — Environmentalists criticized the decision by the Environmental Protection Agency to reject a request to ban the use and sale of lead-containing weights used to balance wheels on vehicles. The Ecology Center, a Michigan-based environmental advocacy organization, had asked EPA to ban the sale of one of the largest unregulated sources of lead to the environment, automotive wheel balancing weights. The Ecology Center has estimated that 1,600 metric tons of lead is released each year onto U.S. roadways from wheel weights that fall off during use. The Ecology Center is now considering legal action to compel EPA action, along with ramped up efforts to pass legislation at the state level to ban the sale of lead-containing wheel weights.

On May 13, 2005 the Ecology Center formally filed a citizens petition under the federal Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) asking EPA to develop rules which would ban the sale of lead wheel weights in the U.S. (copy of petition & related materials available at http://www.leadfreewheels.org). The petition, which received support from the Governor of Maine; state officials in Minnesota and Wisconsin; and the Steel Manufacturers Association, could have led to the establishment of a national lead wheel weight phase-out timeline. On August 8, EPA rejected the petition citing inadequate information on exposure and risk associated with lead wheel weights.

Data similar to that submitted in the Ecology Center petition was judged adequate to justify initiating a phase out of lead wheel weights by the European Union nearly five years ago. Europe recently completed it’s phase-out of lead wheel weights in July 2005 and major automakers in Japan and Korea have already eliminated lead wheel balancing weights from most new vehicles. On average, cars and light trucks use up to 10 of these weights, which are 1/2 to 6 inches in length. The Ecology Center estimates over 38 million lead free weights entered the U.S. market in 2004 alone, mostly on import vehicles from Japan and Korea.

“Lead wheel weights falling off cars and trucks is a major, unregulated source of lead pollution in the U.S.,” said Jeff Gearhart, Campaign Director of the Ecology Center. “Leading corporations, including U.S. automakers, and governments in Europe and Asia have already taken aggressive action to phase-out this lead usage. The U.S. needs to get on the bandwagon.”

Gearhart called for an overhaul of U.S. chemical policy, stating “EPA lacks the will and tools to adequately regulate and protect the public from these hazardous chemicals and products. An overhaul of these regulations is long overdue.” 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.

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.

The Ecology Center is a non-profit environmental advocacy organization that works for healthy communities, clean products and clean production. For more information go to http://www.ecocenter.org or http://www.leadfreewheels.org.

The Ecology Center is a regional environmental organization which works to reduce the environmental impact of vehicles. For more information on the Ecology Center and the issue of lead-free wheel weights, visit www.ecocenter.org and www.leadfreewheels.org.