Photo credit: Hector Alejandro licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Jamie L. Banks, PhD, MS, Executive Director, Quiet Communities, Inc., Co-Founder, The Quiet Coalition

As many people shelter in place during the COVID-19 crisis, they have expressed concern about gas-powered leaf blowers (GLBs). Is it safe to exercise or take walks with children while workers are using these machines? The short answer is no. These machines expose the public—and workers—to unnecessary and preventable health risks since they are a major source of harmful pollutants, including ozone-forming chemicals, carbon monoxide, and fine particulate matter, referred to as PM2.5. And the adverse effects of PM2.5 and ozone are well known: cancer, heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease, and neurological and developmental/reproductive disorders.

Moreover, according to a recent Harvard study, long-term exposure to the type of pollution that GLBs produce may significantly raise the risk of death from COVID-19. These researchers found that a one microgram increase in concentration of fine particulates was associated with a 15% increase in risk of COVID-19 related death. Even short-term elevations in particulate matter, both fine and coarse, have been linked to acute respiratory infections, asthma, COPD, heart attacks, heart failure, and mortality.

The magnitude of the problem cannot be overstated. It is estimated that, in one hour, a single commercial GLB produces 34 million micrograms of particulate matter, much of which remains in the air for long periods. And keep in mind that GLBs are rarely used one at a time as recommended by industry. Rather, it is common to see 2- or 3-man crews, even on small properties. And, unlike PM2.5 from power plants, traffic, and other industrial sources, PM2.5 from leaf blowers and other handheld tools is localized, highly concentrated, and produced in close proximity to airways. Indeed, the possibility of COVID-19 spread by PM (fine and coarse) has been raised in a recent study.

Moreover, gas-powered tools, most powered by inefficient two-stroke engines, account for approximately 90% of all PM2.5 from gas lawn and garden equipment (approximately 16,000 tons nationwide in 2018). In California, it is estimated that “leaf blowers and other small gas engines will create more ozone pollution than all of the passenger cars in the state.”

For those reasons, towns like Sleepy Hollow, NY  and Huntington, NY have already imposed new restrictions. Expressing his concern for workers and residents, Sleepy Hollow Mayor Ken Wray said, “We breathe those particulates; they are getting into and irritating our lungs. Particulates hang in the air for hours after a leaf blower has been shut off.” Residents are being asked to move to less toxic alternatives, such as rakes, brooms, and electric blowers.

GLB pollution is serious. People are being exposed to high levels of pollutants known to be harmful to health and raising their risk of death from COVID-19. Our policy makers need to act now.

We need clean air to survive in this pandemic.

Special thanks to Valerie Seiling Jacobs for her assistance with editing.

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