Worker Exposures: Close Proximity Exhaust Emissions

Gasoline is an integral part of life in America and many industrialized nations. So much so that we forget how dangerous it can be − causing/contributing to anything from skin irritation to organ damage, cancer, and genetic defects. 


For landscape workers, these hazards are especially formidable due to chronic, daily, "close proximity" exposure to emissions that are toxic, carcingogenic and highly concentrated. The two-stroke engines that power nearly all handheld tools - blowers, edgers, trimmers, saws - are particularly concerning.  With all two-stroke engines, 30% of the fuel goes through the machine unburned and becomes an aerosol for all of us to breath - workers and bystanders. 


Gasoline exhaust contains volatile organic compounds including benzene, 1,3 butadiene, and formaldehyde.  All three are potent human carcinogens.  In a recent article (How Leaf Blowers are Trying to Kill Us,"Canadian Audiologist), retired petrochemical engineer, Monty McDonald, PEng, estimates that a worker operating a gas leaf blower is exposed to volatile organic compounds at concentrations at least 500 to 1000 times higher than the OSHA standards used in manufacturing plants. 


But that's not all.  Volatile organic compounds also join with nitrogen oxide in warm seasons to form ozone (aka "smog"), a well known contributor to heart and lung disease, stroke, and premature death. As if this weren't enough, workers also inhale fine particulate matter exhaust which can lodge deep in the lung and enter the bloodstream, causing conditions ranging from heart and lung problems, to stroke, cancer, and death. Other exhaust compounds like carbon monoxide and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons further exacerbate the hazards for landscape workers. 


And what about bystanders? McDonald says, "if you smell the fumes, you have ingested a big dose... the smell of most of these chemicals cannot be detected by your nose at levels less than 500 parts per million." It's time we pay attention and respect the lives of workers, neighbors, and children.

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