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E.P.A. to Ban Lead Tire Weights

9/9/2009 - New York Times
E.P.A. to Ban Lead Tire Weights

By: Jim Motavalli

It’s no secret that cars pollute the environment, but not all of that pollution comes out of the tailpipe. The Environmental Protection Agency says 2,000 tons of lead tire weights — used in wheel balancing — are “lost from vehicles and ultimately end up in the environment each year.” Exposure to lead, the E.P.A. said, has a variety of health effects, including brain and nervous system disorders, high blood pressure, reproductive problems and hypertension.

Recently, the E.P.A. reversed previous decisions and agreed to follow Europe’s lead and seek to ban the manufacture and distribution of lead tire weights.

It’s been a long haul. The E.P.A.’s action was in response to a 2009 petition from the Ecology Center, the Sierra Club and other groups. Four years ago, the federal agency, then led by Stephen Johnson, a George W. Bush appointee, rejected a similar request.

“Over the last few years, we’ve gained more information on the effect of lead tire weights in the environment,” said Steve Owens, an assistant E.P.A. administrator. “Also, a number of states have moved to ban these weights, so there’s clearly rising concern.” State bans on lead tire weights have been passed in Washington State, Vermont and Maine, and others were pending, the Ecology Center said, but a national ban would make those efforts moot.

“We requested that the weights be phased-out by 2011, and we think that is feasible,” Jeff Gearhart, research director at the Ecology Center and a longtime campaigner against lead weights. He called lead tire weights “the largest ongoing unregulated release of lead into the environment,” and said a rule-making process could take six to 12 months.

In a press release from the environmental groups, Tom Neltner of the Sierra Club says that lead gets into the environment when “cars and trucks grind the wheel weights into a powder that spreads into the neighborhoods along our busy streets.”

Ironically, most automakers and North American manufacturers of lead weights are not opposing the ban, Mr. Gearhart said. American automakers have largely switched to coated steel weights for new cars, so the ban will largely affect tire shops, garages and aftermarket suppliers. Without a ban, some weight companies say they are reluctant to voluntarily switch to steel because Asian suppliers could then undercut them by offering cheaper lead weights.

According to Mark Aiken, vice president of sales and marketing at Canadian weight manufacturer Plombco, 90 to 95 percent of its present business is in lead weights. But he said that the company has been making lead alternatives for six years. “We have the capacity to completely switch to steel weights if required,” he said. According to Mr. Aiken, zinc weights are widely used in Europe, but American automakers are trending toward steel alternatives. Steel is lighter, so the new weights are slightly thicker and bulkier than lead (and also more expensive).

Tire retailers that had already agreed to phase out lead wheel weights by 2011 include Wal-Mart and Costco. Kory Lundberg, a Wal-Mart spokesman, said that the company has already stopped ordering lead weights, and is phasing in steel replacements. “We thought it was the right thing to do,” he said.

According to a spokesman, Patrick Langsjoen, the United States Postal Service this year said it would get the lead out of its national fleet of 215,000 under-two-ton delivery vehicles, following the success of pilot programs in the western United States Environmental benefits, he said, were “augmented by employee support for the initiative.”

One opponent of lead bans is the London-based International Lead Association, which says in an online fact sheet that “lead is a sustainable commodity when produced, used and recycled in a responsible manner. Efforts to restrict or even ban its use are not backed up by sound scientific evidence, but rather based on emotive comment and misguided public perception.”

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