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‘Highly polluting’: Why lawn care can be hazardous to health, environment

Click to play video: 'Are gas-powered leaf blowers damaging to your health?' Are gas-powered leaf blowers damaging to your health?
WATCH: Are gas-powered leaf blowers damaging to your health? – Oct 25, 2019

Canadians should rethink the way they upkeep their lawns and move towards more eco-friendly options, experts say.

With fall in full swing across Canada and winter not far away, many will be dusting off their leaf and snow blowers.

While these gadgets may help polish off the yard’s look in record time, gasoline-powered garden equipment — including lawn mowers and hedge trimmers — can be hazardous to the environment and our health, polluting the air we breathe.

“People may be surprised to think that a leaf blower actually produces a lot more pollution than a pick-up truck,” said Michael Brauer, a professor in the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia.

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According to some estimates, using a leaf blower is equivalent to 100 cars on the road, he said.

This is because gas-powered garden equipment tend not to have a well-developed emission treatment system that most modern vehicles do, said Greg Evans, a professor in the department of chemical engineering and applied chemistry at the University of Toronto.

“These are quite primitive engines, not very different than they were 30, 40, 50 years ago, and they’re really, highly polluting,” added Brauer.

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Lawn machines that use a two-stroke engine, where the oil and gas is mixed, spew a combination of gases including carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds (VOC) and nitrogen oxides.

They also emit polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that are known to be carcinogenic as well as fine particles, called PM2.5, that can penetrate deep into the lungs, affecting organ function.

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In the case of the leaf blowers, they end up stirring a lot of dust as well.

What makes the use of such equipment particularly hazardous is the proximity to the person handling them and others living in the area.

“They do have very high emissions of pollutants per amount of fuel burned,” said Jeffrey Brook, an environmental health expert and assistant professor at the University of Toronto.

“Plus they’re operating very close to us, so our own individual exposures can be quite high.”

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In the United States, in 2011, approximately 26.7 million tons of pollutants were emitted by gasoline-powered lawn and garden equipment — accounting for 24 to 45 per cent of all non-road gasoline emissions, according to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

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A 2020 report by the California Air Resources Board found that emissions from small off-road engines, such as leaf blowers, lawn mowers, trimmers and chainsaws, were higher than those emitted from the state’s 14.4 million passenger cars.

In most urban areas, Brauer estimates that lawn equipment would be contributing 10 to 20 per cent of overall emissions.

Besides that, noise pollution is another concern — not just in terms of annoyance but the health impact, as it can trigger strokes and heart attacks that could prove to be fatal, said Brauer.

“I think we just need to take this a little bit more seriously,” he said.

“Even though there may be a benefit in terms of having the equipment that can keep leaves off … there is a cost to using them.”

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In 2018, Canada amended regulations for small off-road spark-ignition engines, imposing stricter emission standards in alignment with the U.S. EPA.

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Over the years, on a local level, some jurisdictions have imposed bans on the use of leaf blowers, but the equipment is still widely used across the country.

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Given the health hazards, moving toward cleaner and quieter electric and battery-powered options is highly recommended, experts say. Where possible, manual push mowers can also come in handy.

Evans said leaving some leaf cover on the lawn can also have ecological benefits.

“I think there needs to be a rethink about our love affair with green lawns,” said Brook.

“We should step back and think about more sustainable ways to grow our yards and maintain them.”

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