Leaf Blowers, Pollution, and COVID-19

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.

Jamie L. Banks, PhD, MSc, is the Executive Director of Quiet Communities, Inc. and the Program Director of The Quiet Coalition. She is an environmentalist and health care scientist dedicated to promoting clean, healthy, quiet, and sustainable landscape maintenance, construction, and agricultural practices. Dr. Banks has an extensive background in health outcomes and economics, environmental behavior, and policy.

Comments (2)

  1. David Vassar

    Professor Banks,

    THANK YOU for your engaging and informative article on a topic that has never gotten the scrutiny, much less the remedy, it seriously warrants. In recent years your colleague Prof. Arline Bronzaft has lent great help to me and my Morningside neighbors–We call ourselves “Sirenity”–in our campaign to persuade Mt Sinai to reduce both volume and frequency of its ambulance sirens; and I’m glad to say we’ve had some success.

    As to leaf blowers: They’re a lose-lose proposition, now more than ever. I’m going to share your article with both Management and Grounds Committee at my cooperative community Morningside Gardens, as well as with the Facilities and Maintenance Department at Fordham University/Lincoln Center where I’m employed as a librarian.

    I’m a 25-year veteran member of Transportation Alternatives, an organization dedicated to cyclist-/pedestrian-friendlier streets with the enormous additional benefit of cleaner air and a much QUIETER urban environment.

    Your good work is much appreciated, and I look forward to the opportunity to meet you (perhaps via ‘Zoom’-?) in the not-distant future.

    Reply
  2. Vicky Jagarnauth

    The landscaper was blowing leaves one day and my car window was below the Sun visor,the entire car was dirty inside, I politely call the guys and show them,inside mycar,they curse me out,I should move my car,,I was sleeping and awoke by the noise,it was too late to move my car,they are very disrespectful, I had to pay $ 150 to full detail my car,please help to stop this.

    Reply

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