Gas-powered leaf blowers are used far too often and their effects really blow: intense noise and major health and environmental impacts.
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Noise is not just a nuisance–it impacts our work, our communications, our mental health, our stress levels, our physical health, our children’s ability to study, and much more.
Some neighborhood noise is unavoidable. But gas leaf blowers run throughout the day, their noise is extreme, and their low-frequency sound waves travel farther than those of battery blowers and easily penetrate windows, disrupting daily life in homes, offices, hospitals, classrooms, and more. When leaf blowers are used to tidy some people’s properties, everyone else pays the price.
You might think a leaf blower just annoys a few neighbors for a few minutes. But the noise travels several city blocks, in all directions. This map shows how just three leaf blowers impact hundreds of households. Yet a typical area this size will see many more leaf blowers on any given day, and often several at once, creating an inescapable cacophony disturbing residents repeatedly throughout the day, even within the walls of their homes.
The noise disturbs me in my back yard, penetrates the walls of my home, interrupts my kids’ studying … Our home is our refuge and these machines intrude on my property and my family.– Santa Cruz resident/petition signer
Read C.H.A.S.E.’s summary report on The Science on the Health Consequences of Noise
Two-stroke leaf blower exhaust is worse than a truck’s in many ways. More than 30% of its fuel/oil mixture gets emitted as an aerosol, unburned. This contains a host of toxins, and carcinogens. Benzene, 1,3-butadiene, acetaldehyde, and formaldehyde increase the risk of a range of health problems, including:
- eye, skin, and respiratory tract irritation
- neurological effects
- lymphoma, leukemia, and other types of cancer
That’s just the start of it. They also emit hydrocarbons, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide, which mix with sunlight to create ground-level ozone, which can cause airway constriction, coughing, sore throat, shortness of breath, emphysema, bronchitis, and asthma. Carbon monoxide exposure can cause both mild and serious effects, from headaches, dizziness, weakness, and nausea to vomiting, disorientation, and worse.
Then there’s the fine particulates (PM2.5), which lodge deep inside the lungs, causing or exacerbating asthma and other respiratory problems and increasing the risks of myocardial infarction, stroke, arrythmia, and heart failure. The manufacturers don’t deny this, and advise people to use their blowers in a “well-ventilated area.” But first, workers will be inhaling high concentrations of all this, and then when it’s “blown away,” it doesn’t disappear–“away” means towards other people. It enters houses, workplaces and schools through open windows. Larger particulates can float in the air for hours to days, and fine particulates stay suspended in the air we breathe for as long as a week or more. Their concentrations decline over distance, but leaf blowers and other gas tools are constantly adding more, day after day, throughout the city. Exposure to elevated PM levels over the long term can reduce life expectancy by several years.
All these health impacts are even more serious for children, the elderly, people with pre-existing conditions, and of course, those who operate them.
Leaf blowers are loud, but even at a distance, their noise raises levels of stress hormones like cortisol, increasing anxiety, cognitive impairment, and the propensity for hostile behavior, elevating blood pressure and the risk of cardiovascular diseases, and compromising the immune system.
Hearing loss is a big risk for anyone who operates a gas-powered leaf blower, but anyone else in an area where leaf blowers are used is also at risk because hearing loss is a function of both noise intensity and its duration.
Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found that a small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 (which gas blowers spew out) leads to a large increase in the COVID-19 death rate. (Xiao et al.)
Impacts on Landscape Workers
The operators of gas leaf blowers are exposed to the same long list of health risks as residents, but at much higher levels. At “ground zero,” the worker faces extremely high concentrations of carbon monoxide and particulate matter and extreme and prolonged noise exposure. Their risk of developing cancer is potentially double. *
Landscape workers face unequal burdens cleaning our yards and parks, and often, limited economic options. Requiring their employers to switch to cleaner equipment is a matter of basic equity, workplace safety, health, and environmental justice and it’s long overdue.
“Switching to battery-powered blowers and weed whips was the best thing I could have done for my workers.” -Arturo Valdivia, Public Services Supervisor, City of Coronado
*Source: CA Air Resources Board, 2018
I”t’s pretty bad. You have to be smelling that smoke all the time, and it can cause you a lot of health problems, allergies and getting sick all the time.”-Noe Bautista, Bautista’s Landscaping, from KQED News
“If you have never worn a two stroke leaf blower on your back, it is hard to imagine the effect the noise, exhaust and dust has on you after hours of use. It is a singular form of trauma for your ears and lungs.”– Ken Foster, Santa Cruz landscaper, who switched from gas to electric blowers in 1988, and has used only manual tools since 1999
You might think a small machine would have small effects. But the gas-powered leaf blower is a little engine with big impacts on our air, soils, and water.
Leaf blowers emit outsized levels of hydrocarbons from burned and unburned fuel, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and reactive organic gases. These go on to form low-level ozone, which causes the much-reviled brown smog that hovers over cities. And nitrogen oxides contribute to acid rain. Thanks to evaporation, leaf blowers even pollute while they’re off, sitting unused.
Meet the Ford Raptor, a 6.2 liter, V8 truck weighing 6,200 lbs. Just one half-hour of running a leaf blower releases the same amount of hydrocarbons as driving a Raptor from north Texas to Anchorage, Alaska—3,887 miles. (Edmunds.com)
How can that be? Over time, we’ve gotten better at reducing some of the emissions from cars and trucks, but we still don’t regulate off-road engines very much. In fact, 2020 is the year that the CA Air Resources Board estimates smog-forming emissions of small off-road engines, like leaf blowers, will surpass those of light-duty passenger cars.
And when it comes to climate change, cities are searching for ways to reduce their output of greenhouse gases, and the easiest sources to target are those most easily replaced by other technologies and that cost the least to do so. Electric leaf blowers can do the same job as gas blowers for the same cost of equipment and lower long-term costs of power and maintenance. This is low-hanging fruit that the city should be eager to pluck for easy and immediate reductions to our greenhouse gas emissions.
As for the landscapes that leaf blowers are supposed to “clean up” …
- They blow away leaves, but also any mulch and all kinds of organic matter needed for healthy soil–and they blow away a lot of soil, too! The loss of protective cover exposes plants to pathogens and diseases.
- They disturb and displace beneficial insects and critters important to healthy gardens and ecosystems. Many birds, for example, depend on the insects found in the leaf litter layer to feed their young.
- They disperse chemicals, fertilizers, and pesticides that are already present on the ground into the air, sending them to other people’s yards and houses, and onto the street, where rain carries them to the ocean.
It’s hard to think of another technology so outdated, with such extreme impacts on our health and environment, that has existing, superior alternatives, yet is still widely used all around us. Like removing lead from gasoline and paint, when cost-effective alternatives are available, there’s no reason to delay any longer–when those cleaner alternatives are finally widespread, we wonder why we ever held on to the dirty ones so long.
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