Leaf blowers flagged as polluters, possible health threat

  • What are the health risks caused by using leafblowers? LA TIMES PHOTO

Published: 9/19/2017 11:04:53 PM

Five years after starting his first job with a landscaping crew in the suburbs of Seattle, Fredi Dubon decided he had enough and quit. The workdays were long, sometimes 12 hours, but a bigger problem was having to inhale exhaust from his gas-powered leaf blower.

The fumes tended to be harshest in the cool mornings or when he ran his machine in the narrow yards of condo buildings. Eventually Dubon, an immigrant from El Salvador, said he was getting migraine headaches “pretty much every day,” a problem that both he and a doctor who examined him attributed to the exhaust from the blower.

Dubon joined a landscaping company that uses electric machines.

His headaches are only one of the possible hazards from gasoline-fueled lawn and garden equipment.

California’s approval of tightened air quality regulations, campaigns for leaf blower bans by activists around the country, and resolutions passed by the state medical societies of New York and Massachusetts highlighting health risks are beginning to draw more attention to the issue. At the same time, landscaping equipment manufacturers once accused of resisting a shift to electric machines, and that still push back against environmental regulations, are offering more so-called zero-emissions options.

Scant research exists on the potential health impact of emissions from the millions of gas-powered leaf blowers, lawn mowers, trimmers and related equipment. Yet, despite improvements, such machines still emit toxic contaminants such as carcinogenic benzene and large amounts of other smog-forming chemicals.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that emissions of smog-producing substances from mowers, blowers and other small off-road engines in 2016 were 81 percent as high as the amount from standard sedans. In the air pollution-plagued Los Angeles area, this category is projected to become a bigger contributor to smog than cars will be by around 2020.

Perhaps most worrisome, the gas engines release high concentrations of microscopic ultrafine particles, as recently confirmed in tests commissioned by FairWarning. Ultrafine particles are unregulated, but scientists increasingly believe they are a serious danger. That is particularly true for landscaping workers, but also a potential concern for other adults and children who are exposed to the emissions. Ultrafine particles are 0.1 microns, or roughly one-thousandth the width of a human hair.

“The basic idea is that the smaller the particle, the deeper it can be inhaled into the lungs, and the more potential it has then to cause health problems” such as lung cancer, heart disease, strokes, asthma and other respiratory ailments, said Jo Kay Ghosh, an epidemiologist and the health effects officer for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, a pollution control agency covering much of Southern California. Ultrafine particles also can pass through cell membranes and slip into the bloodstream.

Unpublished, preliminary research by the California Air Resources Board suggested that the equipment operators were exposed to at least 10 times more ultrafine particles than if they were standing next to a busy road.

For workers who earn their living operating such equipment, “this is extremely alarming,” Michael T. Benjamin, chief of the board’s monitoring and laboratory division, said at a hearing last November.

More recent testing conducted by a consulting firm for FairWarning, involving six workers who were monitored while using 16 pieces of gas-powered equipment, detected even more dramatic surges of ultrafine particles. In one instance, ultrafine particle levels around an 11-year-old leaf blower were 50 times higher than at a nearby clogged intersection at rush hour. In same round of tests, with a 2017 model leaf blower, the ultrafine particle level was more than 40 times higher than at the busy intersection.

Standard, disposable “N95” masks or respirators available at hardware stores can protect against exhaust particles if they are fitted properly, which isn’t always easy. It takes more specialized respirators to filter out gases such as benzene. But because of cost, discomfort and lack of information, many workers don’t get any kind of respiratory protection.

Aside from possible hazards to landscaping workers, the gas-powered equipment pollutes the air breathed by everyone. That spurred the California Air Resources Board in November to approve tighter requirements for mowers, blowers, chainsaws and other small off-road engines, with broader restrictions expected within a few years.


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