A coalition of environmental groups is pushing to ban lead wheel weights, citing the toxic effects of lead dust from weights that drop off on roads and streets and are then ground into a breathable dust that also pollutes runoff water and wetlands.

Last Friday's request by more than a dozen groups to the US Environmental Protection Agency is to ban the manufacture and sale of lead wheel weights (often erroneously called "tire weights") throughout the US, under the federal Toxic Substances Control Act.

With a new administration in the White House,  the groups hope the EPA will rule in their favor this time. A similar request in 2005 was turned down by the EPA, which said at the time the evidence of harm wasn't sufficient.

The coalition estimates that 3.5 million pounds of lead weights are shed every year. While lead has been banned in most other consumer uses--including leaded gasoline, plumbing, and paint--the tire weights remain legal in most of the US.

They are already banned in the European Union and in the state of Washington, and several other states are considering similar measures.  They will be phased out in Maine by the end of next year. The U.S. Postal Service and the Department of Defense have also stopped using them.

In contrast to wheel weights, lead batteries for cars are the most widely recycled consumer product in the country. According to a 2005 report by the Battery Council International, more than 99 percent of lead from 12-Volt batteries is recaptured.

The substitute for lead wheel weights is simple: steel wheel weights, which now take roughly one-fifth of the market, according to the Michigan Ecology Center. Other alternatives are made of zinc or composite materials.

The EPA has 90 days to respond to the petition. Among the groups making the request are the Sierra Club, the nation's oldest and largest environmental organization, and several organizations specifically concerned with lead poisoning.

Lead wheel weights collected from roads, from Lead-Free Wheels site

Lead wheel weights collected from roads, from Lead-Free Wheels site

[SOURCE: SF Gate, Lead-Free Wheels; , press release; TOP PHOTO of Bullitts wheel weight by Flickr user Nude Spider Monkey ]