Mailbag: Is Lead Tape Hazardous?

by: Bill Gray | August 13, 2010

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Racquet_handgrip_009 Is the lead tape used to customize racquets safe?—Kevin

The consensus of the medical experts and professional stringers we spoke to is that the chances of getting lead poisoning from lead tape are slim to none. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need to be careful when working with it. There is a slight risk that a few lead particles could be released when you’re applying or stripping the tape. “We generally assume that inorganic lead does not go through the skin well, but inhalation and ingestion are much more potent exposure routes,” says Dr. Andrew C. Todd, a leading lead-poisoning expert at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital School of Medicine (who earlier this summer tested a portion of Ludwig von Beethoven’s skull and debunked an earlier study that claimed the composer could have died from acute exposure to lead).

Todd advises you pull off the tape with the racquet positioned in your lap or at your feet, not at the level of your face. Some pro stringers take the extra precaution of wearing latex gloves. You should also put the used tape in a plastic bag—not in your racquet bag where it could be exposed to your towel—to discard it. And make sure that lead-taped racquets are always out of the reach of small children, who are the most susceptible to lead poisoning.

In play, the outer edge of the frame serves as a protective buffer for the tape on the inside of the hoop in case the racquet is scraped on the court surface. But even if lead particles were released they would likely be dispersed into the atmosphere and just fall to the ground. “I would expect the exposure to the player to be minimal or none because he’s already left the area to handle the next shot,” Todd says. “Still, lead is not good for one, and ideally, it would be a sound idea for a different dense element to be found.”

But there aren’t any other viable options to lead, says Ron Carr of Gamma Sports, one of the largest manufacturers of lead tape. Tin, aluminum and copper are too light and would have to be applied too thickly. Tungsten lacks the needed flexibility, and silver and gold are cost-prohibitive. So we won’t be getting the lead out, at least not soon.

I recently purchased three racquets that are all the same model, but they vary in weight from 11.2 ounces to 11.5 ounces to 11.7 ounces. I have only played with the 11.5-ounce racquet, which I like a lot. I’m a little concerned about the other two, and whether weight differences of this magnitude will be detrimental for a player of my 4.0-4.5 level.—Jeff

You’re probably not going to notice a difference between the 11.5-ouncer and the 11.7-ouncer at your level, Jeff. Racquet models, like most mass-produced products, often come off assembly lines with slightly different weights, usually within 7 grams (about a fifth of an ounce). But the weight variation between the 11.2 and the 11.7 is significant. There is probably quite a difference in their swingweights, which could impact your game—unless the heavier frame had a more head-light balance (which is highly unlikely). Our advice for players looking for a back-up racquet is to have it weighed before you buy. If the shop doesn’t have a scale, try a postal scale.

I use and love my old Wilson Hammer 4.0 110, but the frame is starting to go and I need an updated replacement. I'm a 3.5-4.0 player who hits with lots of topspin, and I love the power and control the Hammer helps me produce. I'm at a loss as to what to replace it with. Can you suggest anything in the same weight category or lighter with as large a sweet spot. Thanks.—Dennis Sanford

Racquets in the sub-9-ounce weight class like your Hammer 4.0 were all the rage 10 years ago. But they're almost extinct now, as the brands have been beefing up their game-improvement frames. Tennis Warehouse still carries the old Wilson Hyper Hammer 5.3 Stretch OS, which is similar to your Hammer 4.0 in weight (9 ounces) and head size, and has an open-string pattern for more spin. There are also a couple of newer flyweight frames that have similar characteristics: the 8.9-ounce Head YouTek Three Star and the 8.6-ounce Pacific Nexus. Playtest all three and let us know how you make out.

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