Love us and Leaf us Alone!

Lucy Weinstein, MD, FAAP

Lucy Weinstein, MD, FAAP

“Love us and Leaf us Alone!”

Led by Environmental Health Committee Co-Chair, Dr. Lucy Weinstein, MD, MPH FAAP, New York Chapter 2 of  the American Academy of Pediatrics has made significant strides in reducing noise pollution across our region.  Dr. Weinstein has worked with the committee to help enact bans on gasoline leaf blowers, often going community-to-community to meet with local and state legislators and neighborhood groups.  Here she recounts her experiences and success in reducing the environmental imprint of gasoline leaf blowers – a timely topic now that fall is here and many of us will be bagging up leaves. 

You can hear them from many blocks away. Gasoline leaf blowers are relentless and go from morning till night, seven days a week, in many of our Long Island neighborhoods.  As annoying as the sound can be, there are major health and environmental concerns associated with these devices.  Fortunately, with the help of AAP Chapter2 and other partners, our local Environmental Health Committee has worked to restrict their use in some communities in our chapter and is working to ban or reduce their use in others.

Gas leaf blowers are among the worst offenders in our garages.  Their inefficient 2- stroke engines burn an oil-gas mixture that generates high levels of toxic chemicals, and they churn up fine particulate matter at ground level, where they are easily inhaled.

Up to 30% of its gasoline is discharged unburned.  The exhaust from gasoline leaf blowers combines with sunlight to produce ground level ozone which can cause immediate respiratory symptoms and may exacerbate long-term lung disease.

Other pollutants caused by gasoline leaf blowers read like a “Who’s Who” of toxins which adversely affects health, particularly for the young and elderly. These include:

  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – including known carcinogens such as
    • Benzene
    • 1,3 butadiene
    • Acetaldehyde
    • Formaldehyde
  • Carbon monoxide
  • Nitrogen oxides
  • Particulate matter – including mold, fungal spores, insect eggs, fertilizer, heavy metals and rodent feces
    • Fine particulates which are inhaled deep into lungs, damage lung tissue, and increase the risk of cancer and premature death.
  • Carbon dioxide
  • Other hydrocarbons

According to an Environmental Protection Agency study, small lawn and garden engines account for 5%–10% of total US emissions of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, and fine particulate matter. The hydrocarbon emissions from 30 minutes of running a 2-stroke leaf blower equals those produced in a 3,900-mile drive in a Ford Raptor!

Children are particularly vulnerable to these toxins because their organs are still developing, and they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults. They are also lower to the ground and therefore inhale more pollutants released into the air by this equipment and spend more time outside. Gasoline leaf blowers are linked to asthma exacerbation, pulmonary disease, various cancers, heart attack, strokes, congestive heart failure, and increased overall mortality.

LeafblowerThese devices are also significant causes of noise pollution, which is why you can hear them six streets over in our neighborhoods.  The ears of young children are particularly susceptible to the damaging effects of the intense, high-frequency noise that gasoline leaf blowers generate. Noise has been shown to negatively affect blood pressure, to increase stress, impair communication, reduce school performance, and diminish the accuracy of complex tasks.

Gasoline leaf blowers also harm gardens and landscapes via loss of top soil and of beneficial soil microbes. They also disturb habitats of small mammals, birds and insects. It’s better for the environment to allow some leaves to remain under bushes and trees.

What are the alternatives?

Banning gasoline leaf blowers does not mean losing this landscaping tool to maintain our yards, parks and community gardens.  Today we have commercial-grade Lithium Ion battery blowers. They are a much better alternative.  Newer commercial-grade lithium battery blowers do not pollute, do not cause ground level ozone, eliminate solid waste byproducts and are much quieter.  These and manual equipment (think rakes and brooms) have been shown to be equally or nearly equally efficient and effective, and are cost-efficient. Landscapers and homeowners actually save money.  (In a test in California, a Grandma was nearly as fast and was more effective in cleaning a yard than a leaf blower!!!)
As we all become more aware of the accumulated impact of toxins in our environment and of the specific vulnerability of our children to pollutants, our committee has been working to have this equipment eliminated from local use.  Over 400 municipalities across the US have restricted or banned gasoline leaf blowers, including 16 in Westchester.

However, “Lawn Guy-land” has been slow to adopt healthier alternatives.

The Environmental Health Committee for New York Chapter 2 has been actively working to improve our region’s environmental health.  Our list of accomplishments related to reducing gasoline powered leaf blowers includes:

  • We’ve written letters of support and testified before New York City Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection in favor of legislation sponsored by a Queens city council member that would restrict the use and sale of gas lawn equipment.
  • A medical summary I wrote assisted the Medical Society of the State of NY in developing a resolution regarding the dangers of gasoline leaf blowers; the resolution passed and will be presented at the next national American Medical Association meeting. Adoption of this resolution would strengthen our cause to enact a ban of these devices across our region.
  • Brookhaven National Laboratory has agreed to consider “greener” landscape practices as a result of a presentation we gave – along with Huntington CALM (Citizens Advocating for Leafblower Moderation – to their landscape maintenance division.
  • Huntington and Stony Brook University Hospitals have agreed to restrict their use of gasoline leaf blowers based on information we provided. Northwell Health (formerly North Shore-LIJ) will have in their fall newsletter an article about the health risks of gasoline leaf blowers.
  • I’ve joined with partners such as the Environmental Health Section of the American Public Health Association to publicize this issue and am hoping to recruit more pediatricians interested in this issue to engage other community elected officials after the election.

Our Academy’s goal is “Dedicated to the Health of All Children.” This includes making changes across our local communities that positively influence child health.  In ways big and small, making sure our communities make choices that put the health and well-being of children at their forefront — and bringing information to them about the dangers of pollutants — is the core mission of our committee.  We will next bring our cause to local town councils across Long Island to further spread the word about the dangers of gasoline leaf blowers on child health.

For more information:

(Dr. Lucy Weinstein, MD, MPH, FAAP is Co-Chair of the New York, Chapter 2 Environmental Health Committee, Assistant Clinical Professor of Preventive Medicine at SUNY/Stony Brook, and consultant speaker for the Child Welfare Training Program of the Dept. of Social Welfare of SUNY/Stony Brook)