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Opinion: Leaf blowers are hurting Utah kids’ health

We need to shift our lawn care priorities to protect children’s health.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) McGillis School children grab rakes and gloves as they team up and head into their school's neighborhood to help neighbors with their autumn leaves.

As every parent knows, there’s almost nothing more irritating than when you finally get your kid down for a nap, plop yourself down on the couch to relax and hear that dreaded sound: “Waaaaaaaa!”

What’s even more irritating? Realizing that a loud noise outside is the culprit. The leaf blower.

The Tribune recently reported that the Division of Air Quality is proposing to restrict yard care equipment with two-stroke engines — including gas-powered leaf blowers — during bad summer air days, in an effort to bring Utah into compliance with federal air quality (ozone) rules. As a pediatrician and mother, I try to stay aware of the big environmental health hazards that our community’s children face: air pollution, lead poisoning, the drying of the Great Salt Lake. But it wasn’t until a string of hot afternoons last summer, when day after day my child woke up screaming from his naps, that I learned about the health dangers of gas-powered leaf blowers.

Angry about the noise after one too many sabotaged naps, I started poking around. Google led to more in-depth reading led to my contacting experts in the field. Turns out these small, everyday devices pump out so much pollution it’s almost comical. The California Air Resources Board has estimated that using a gas-powered leaf blower for just one hour releases as much smog-forming pollution as driving an average car for 15 hours or 1,100 miles.

In other words, you could drive from Salt Lake City to Denver and back and still not make as much smog as you would running that gas-powered leaf blower for a single hour.

And in that hour, that helpful little leaf blower spews dangerous pollutants including carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, benzene, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons and particulate matter. As the Mount Sinai Center for Children’s Environmental Health has highlighted, these toxins are associated with serious health problems such as asthma, autism, cancer, heart disease and dementia, among others. The Environmental Protection Agency has identified gas-powered garden equipment as an important source of toxic and cancer-causing pollution. Babies, children and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable, with their still-developing lungs, brains and other organs susceptible to harm from these toxins.

As if that weren’t enough, leaf blowers don’t just blow leaves. They blow so fast that dust, pesticides, mold, pollen and heavy metals are kicked up into the air — which our children then breathe in. Heavy metals such as lead, which can harm children’s brain development, are found in soil. As we’ve known for years, there is no safe level of lead exposure for children. If blown into the air, these toxins can become dust. When our kids inhale that dust, heavy metals and hazardous chemicals can enter their lungs and then seep into their blood, with the potential to cause harm throughout their bodies.

But let us not forget about the noise. Turns out my baby’s screams weren’t unwarranted. A single gas-powered leaf blower can expose people nearby to the same amount of noise as a jet taking off. When multiple blowers go at the same time, as is often the case, it’s like strolling down the tarmac without any ear protection. The World Health Organization has long recommended outdoor noise levels of 55 decibels or less — and even quieter for children. Yet noise exposure from gas-powered leaf blowers can be over 100 decibels close-up, and still too loud even if you walk a full 800 feet away. The low frequency of gas-powered leaf blowers can travel long distances and barrel through walls and — landing at the ears of, say, sleeping babies.

This noise harms more than just nap time. Babies and children are particularly sensitive to noise pollution because their ears and brains are still developing. Exposure to loud noises in pregnancy has been linked to hearing loss later in childhood. Loud noises have also been shown to cause increased levels of stress, decreased concentration and impaired learning.

We need to shift our lawn care priorities to protect children’s health. The proposal to limit gas-powered leaf blowers and similar equipment on bad air days is not sufficient but is a good first step, and we wouldn’t be the first place to do so. More than 100 municipalities in the U.S. have banned or restricted gas leaf blowers. Some of these places have limited the amount of time gas leaf blowers can be used or limiting it to certain days. Others encourage alternatives such as electric lower-decibel blowers or rakes (or embracing the positives of leaving the leaves!) The Utah Department of Environmental Quality is continuing to incentivize lawn care businesses to go electric, with opportunities for businesses to earn thousands of dollars by switching out their equipment to cleaner options.

This month, the Division of Air Quality is seeking public comments on the new proposal — you can show your support here. When it comes to children’s health, it’s a step in the right direction: pediatrician and parent approved.

Hanna Saltzman

Hanna Saltzman, MD, is a pediatrician and mother in Salt Lake City.

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