Automobile Industry Largest Source of Lead Pollution Today

July 23, 2003

Jeff Gearhart, Ecology Center, (734) 663-2400 x 117
Charles Griffith, Ecology Center, (734) 663-2400 x 116
Kevin Mills, Environmental Defense, (202) 387-3500

(23 July 2003 — New York, NY & Ann Arbor, MI) The use of lead in cars accounts for the largest remaining source of lead pollution, finds a new report released today. One car component, the lead starter battery, is responsible for the majority of current lead use in the world.

Getting the Lead Out: Impacts of and Alternatives for Automotive Lead Uses, jointly released by the Michigan-based Ecology Center and New York-based Environmental Defense, documents the release of lead into the environment resulting from automobile manufacturing, use, and disposal. The report calls on the automotive industry to phase out lead use in cars, most notably in the starter battery, and to take responsibility for ensuring the recovery and proper management of lead used in cars.

The report finds that the North American automobile industry is responsible for the release or transfer each year of more than 300 million pounds (136,508 metric tons) of lead through mining, smelting, manufacturing, recycling and disposing of lead-containing automotive components — primarily batteries - - and through normal vehicle use.

Over its lifetime, a car uses as much lead as a house with lead paint, which has been banned for decades. Lead pollution associated with autos gets into the air and soil when lead is produced or recycled for use in cars, and water may be polluted from the disposal of batteries and autos, or when wheel weights are lost on roadways.

“Automobiles are responsible for a majority of lead pollution in North America, or approximately 16 pounds of lead per vehicle over its lifetime” said Jeff Gearhart, report author and Clean Car Campaign Research Director for the Ecology Center.

The amount of lead in cars is particularly significant because of its serious impact on human health, including behavioral problems and learning disabilities. Children are particularly susceptible to lead exposure, which occurs when lead dust contaminates floors, soil, or other areas in which children live or play.

“Research suggests there is no safe exposure to lead,” said Jerome Nriagu, professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan. “Lead poisoning is one of the most serious environmental health problems in the U.S. and the world.”

Lead is used in a number of car components, including lead wheel weights, solder in electronics, and lead car batteries. However, lead-free alternatives are available. Lead wheel weights can be replaced with tin or steel weights. Alternative battery technologies such as nickel-metal hydride batteries are on the road today in gas-electric hybrid cars and can be further developed for use in conventional vehicles.

“Investment in alternative technologies - much like FedEx is doing by introducing vehicles with lithium-ion batteries into its fleet - is critical,” said Kevin Mills, co-author of the report and director of the Clean Car Campaign at Environmental Defense. “The automotive industry can safeguard children’s health by improving vehicle design.”

“This country had the good sense to get the lead out of fuel and paint. Now it’s time to get the lead out of the largest remaining source of lead pollution - cars,” said Jim Rochow, president of the Trust for Lead Poisoning Prevention. “Children deserve the best chance for healthy neurological development. The automotive industry can do their part by removing lead from cars.”

To download a copy of the report, please visit: You may also view the Executive Summary by clicking here. (Pdf files, Adobe Reader required.) To learn more about lead use in cars, including fact sheets and a Q & A, click here.

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The Ecology Center is a regional environmental organization based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which works for clean air, safe water, and environmental justice. The Auto Project of the Ecology Center works to address the toxic and health issues related to the production of automobiles and promotes cleaner vehicle technologies. (

Environmental Defense, a leading national nonprofit organization, represents more than 300,000 members. Since 1967, Environmental Defense has linked science, economics, law and innovative private-sector partnerships to create breakthrough solutions to the most serious environmental problems.