Stuff I Wrote Elsewhere: Lead Wheel Weights

The issue of lead wheel weights has become a touchstone for me in thinking about risk perception and how we respond to various sort of environmental contamination.

I did a story in 2001 about research by a clever scientist named Bob Root who had quantified the lead wheel weights falling off of our cars’ wheels. The amount was staggering – four tons per year in a city the size of Albuquerque, being ground up into toxic dust.

I wrote a front page story. No on called me. No one called Bob. There was no outrage, no calls for regulation. Nada.

It’s easy to imagine what the level of outrage would have been if the contamination was coming for a corporate polluter. Or, this being New Mexico, one of our nuclear weapons research centers. But perception of risk and outrage over its causes seems to be strongly linked to our beliefs about who is responsible. With no evil actor behind the lead wheel weights, no one seemed to care.

It’s nearly a decade later, and they let me write columns for the newspaper, so I revisited the topic today (sub/ad req):

Imagine what might happen if we discovered some company was clandestinely dumping 4 tons a year of toxic waste on the streets of Albuquerque.

Let’s call it DefenseCo Inc., and let’s say its workers were dribbling out their toxic waste a tiny bit at a time as they drove around the city’s streets, year after year after year, spreading it all over town hoping no one would notice.

Just to juice it up, imagine it was a type of toxic waste that was especially harmful to children, and that this was happening all over the country, not just in Albuquerque.

Imagine the outrage.

Perhaps not surprisingly, no one called this time either.

P.S. Sorry for the silence, I did in fact make it safely home from my European adventure, but I’ve exhausted for a week. My travel adventures really took it out of me. Back to water blogging soon.


  1. I have a bag of them at home, I pick them up off the street whenever I see them. Yes, carefully, wrapping them in a piece of paper and not licking my fingers ….

    You know they’re not always made with lead nowadays?

    One supplier’s blog says they:

    ” … no longer supply certain states with lead-based wheel weights. The current actions take place are as follows:

    California (Bill: SB 757)
    Action: Enacted into law
    Date: 5/18/2009
    Implementation Date: 12/31/2009
    Washingtona (Bill: SHB 1033)
    Action: Enacted into law
    Date: 4/28/2009
    Implementation Date: 1/1/2011
    Maine (Bill: LD 986)
    Action: Enacted into law
    Date: 5/6/2009
    Implementation Date: 1/1/2011
    Vermont (Bill: Act 193)
    Action: Enacted into law
    Date: 6/7/2009
    Implementation Date: 1/1/2010 State Vehicles
    9/1/2011 New Vehicles
    U.S. EPA
    Action: Petition Granted
    Date: 8/26/2009
    Implementation Date: TBD
    Wisconsin (Bill: AB544)
    Action: Bill Was Not Voted On
    Date: No Vote
    Implementation Date: N/A – bill was not voted on this session
    New York (Bill: AB8687A)
    Action: Bill in Legislature
    Date: Current
    Implementation Date: 1/1/2011
    Rhode Island (Bill: 7664)
    Action: Bill in Legislature
    Date: Current
    Implementation Date: TBD
    Illinois (Bill: SB 3347)
    Action: Bill Awaiting Governor’s Signature
    Date: 5/27/2010
    Implementation Date: 1/1/2012
    Iowa (Bill: HF384)
    Action: Bill in Legislature
    Date: Delayed
    Implementation Date: TBD
    Maryland (Bill: HB 763)
    Action: Bill did not pass
    Date: 2009 Legislature
    Implementation Date: N/A

    If a customer in these states makes a purchase for lead-based wheel weights, we will then contact the purchaser to notify the cancellation and refund of the purchase.”

  2. As many have said before, humans’ response to risk is emotional and not quantitative.

    A standard one is

    A company wants to put a nuclear reactor in your town. Your increased risk from this reactor is 1,000,000th of your risk of being hit by a lightning bolt during your lifetime.

    ‘Don’t let them put in the nuclear plant.
    Let’s go swimming.’
    ‘But there might be lightning!’
    ‘It will never hit us.’

  3. Excellent comment, John. A radiation biologist from Columbia U. told me an anecdote about how people were concerned about some trace radionuclides that had washed into the Rio Grande in Albuquerque from Sandia Labs. These people insisted that Sandia restore the river to its original level of radioactivity. But those radionuclides had been in distilled water and so the actual radioactivity of the river had been diluted by that leak. So in order to meet the demands of the protesters, Sandia would have had to add plutonium to the river.
    Hat tip to Page van der Linden for letting me know about your comment.

  4. That’s a compound error: misunderestimating _both_ risks, then multiplying the fractions.

    “The right statistical question is ‘Of the people who are in a position where they could be hit, what fraction do get hit.’ This figure is more like 1 in 3000 ….”

    See Barry Brooks explaining sustainable nuclear options at
    (as a biologist, he thinks beyond his personal horizon in assessing risk and benefit).

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