It’s fall, and during fall, leaves fall.
Over time the dropped leaves decay and provide many benefits to our ecosystem: protective cover for the small creatures inhabiting the land and soil nutrients. We used to leave the leaves around the trees and shrubs to feed the soil and protect the roots against hard frost. We either mowed into mulch or raked and bagged the ones that fell on our lawns to be sent to a place to be composted so that we could bring them back to our yards in the spring—true recycling.
Now that some of us are older and can’t do the raking anymore, we hire people. Enter the rise of a whole new industry: the lawn-care or landscape companies. We see those parked (and sometimes blocking) our streets, no longer just in the fall and spring, but now all year round. Most of these companies are equipped with the gas-powered leaf-blowing machines that rattle so many of us.
Landscape companies like to use these powerful gas-powered leaf blowers because they get the job done quickly and efficiently! They employ crews who carry their leaf blowers like backpacks. These young people are often from immigrant communities. Like anyone else, they are lucky to have a job. But they are unlucky in that their jobs may well contribute to early hearing loss if they don’t have ear protectors. Notice how many of them don’t.
Gas-powered leaf blowers emit 80 to 92 decibels of noise, and some large commercial units emit even more.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), noise above 70 decibels over a prolonged period may start to damage your hearing. If leaf blowing is a full-time job, hearing loss is all but guaranteed for these young workers carrying the backpacks. One sign in the Gloucester auditorium of those opposed to banning gas-powered leaf blowers read, “Worry about real problems.” As if a whole population of leaf
blowers losing their hearing is not a real problem; maybe not for us, but what about them?
With many more people working from home these days, the noise argument may well have contributed to an uptick in ordinances proposed to city governments all over the country.
Since the EPA standards for leaf blowers and other small landscape equipment haven’t been updated since 2010 and there is no statewide law in Massachusetts, it’s up to cities and towns to regulate them. Bans of gas-powered machines are in effect in Washington, D.C., Miami Beach, Florida and Evanston, Illinois. California will end the sale of gas-powered blowers next summer. A phase-out by 2025 has been approved by the Multnomah County Leadership in Portland, Oregon, and the Seattle City Council is outlawing gas-powered tools, first by all city departments and contractors (by January 2025) and eventually, in 2027 by all businesses and residents.
In Massachusetts, Lexington, Belmont, Arlington, Concord, and Dedham have voted to phase in year-round bans on gas-powered blowers. Swampscott will prohibit blowers from Memorial to Labor Day.
Although noise is annoying for people, especially those working from home who need a quiet environment to do their work, it is not the primary reason why we should ban gas-powered leaf blowers.
The main reason is that they are hazardous to our health, the health of our planet, and the survival of the small creatures we share our yards with. The latter are losing their winter leaf cover when winds of over 200 miles per hour are directed at their hiding places, blowing them into smithereens. These very high winds also blow herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, and other hazardous chemicals into the air we breathe. Even if we have healthy lungs, that stuff gets into our bodies when we walk near a leaf blower at work. Imagine the damage to someone whose lungs are already compromised.
If these winds coming out of the front of these machines are bad for all of us living creatures, there is more. Gas-powered leaf blowers are dirty machines and have no place in a world that is fighting global warming. The small two-stroke engines may seem efficient because they are inexpensive, lightweight so they can be easily carried like a backpack. But the mixing of oil and gasoline that drive these motors leaves a residue of unburned aerosols into the air. These emissions spew benzene (which we know to be a carcinogen), methane and carbon dioxide into the air. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) estimates that using a commercial leaf blower (many of which are powered by two-stroke engines) for one hour produces as much smog-forming pollution as driving 1,100 miles in a car.
So, this is the irony: we may proudly show that with our hybrid or all electric vehicles, we do our part to reduce carbon dioxide (the primary greenhouse gas emitted through human activities), and then we allow landscapers to use their gas-powered equipment in our yards, the equivalent of driving a (gasoline-powered) car from Boston to Birmingham Alabama.
Efficiency and ,speed and convenience, at what price?
It is true, there are other factors that need to be considered, such as the costs to the landscaper of buying new equipment, such as extra batteries. Last week, the Kyroz auditorium in Gloucester’s city hall, was packed with local landscapers to make sure a proposed ordinance to ban gas-powered leaf blowers died on the vine. It did. One sign read: “Stop destroying small businesses.”
This argument requires serious consideration. The president of a landscaping business that operates in the Washington D.C. area calculated that replacing his equipment would take a big bite out of his revenue. He is considering moving to a clientele in the D.C. suburbs where such bans are not in effect. Changing batteries frequently is annoying, but then again, the noise and the damage to our environment are more than annoying. Landscapers complain they cannot get the wind power from battery-charged leaf blowers – but now that we know what that wind does, are we willing to take that wind with all its nasty side effects?
I am sure we can be creative in finding new ways to approach lawn care to meet the needs of all creatures, big and small. We can learn from what others are doing. For example, in Evanston, Illinois, landscaping companies registered with the city may be eligible for grants of up to $3,000 to assist with the purchase of electric-powered leaf blowers through the city’s Entrepreneurship Support Grant program.
If we can talk with each other and give full weight to the consequences of the old and the new, we will come up with temporary compromises that will give rise to win-win solutions over time.
Sylvia Vriesendorp is a Manchester resident since 1993 and a public health professional.