David Owen, a renowned long-time author for The New Yorker, has a new article in the magazine, with the provocative headline: “Is Noise Pollution the Next Big Public Health Crisis?”
The piece is not explicitly about leaf blowers but instead about the larger phenomenon of ambient noise, and its effects on human and animal life. Sample:
Ears evolved in an acoustic environment that was nothing like the one we live in today. Daniel Fink—a retired California internist, whose own, milder hyperacusis began in a noisy restaurant on New Year’s Eve, 2007, and who is now an anti-noise activist—told me, “Until the industrial revolution, urban dwellers’ sleep was disturbed mostly by the early calls of roosters from back-yard chicken coops or nearby farms.” The first serious sufferers of occupational hearing loss were probably workers who pounded on metal: blacksmiths, church-bell ringers, the people who built the boilers that powered the steam engines that created the modern world. (Audiologists used to refer to a particular high-frequency hearing-loss pattern as a “boilermaker’s notch.”)
The whole piece is very much worth reading. And, for parallel with the particular focus of the site, consider this parallel argument from The Atlantic:
The biggest worry of today’s public-health community is not, of course, leaf blowers—it’s the opioid disaster, plus addictions of other forms. The next-biggest worry is obesity, plus diabetes and the other ills that flow from it.
But coming up fast on the list is hearing loss. According to a 2017 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-quarter of Americans ages 20 to 69 who reported good to excellent hearing actually had diminished hearing. This is largely caused by rising levels of ambient urban noise—sirens, traffic, construction, leaf blowers—which can lead to a range of disorders, from high blood pressure to depression to heart disease. “When I started out, I’d see people in their 60s with hearing problems,” says Robert Meyers, an ENT specialist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Now I’m seeing them in their 40s.”…
Hearing damage is cumulative. When the tiny, sound-sensing hairlike cells, called stereocilia, in the inner ear are damaged—usually by extended exposure to sounds of 85 decibels or above—they are generally gone for good. For the landscapers (and homeowners) who use gas-powered blowers—a foot away from their ears—the most powerful can produce sounds of 100 decibels or more. Meyers told me, “Each time I see these crews, I think to myself: 10 years from now, they’ll be on the path to premature deafness.”
A writer who lives in a medium-sized city in the West writes about this predicament. (This letter is used with the reader’s permission but without her name, and with identifying details removed.)
I have been thinking about the 2019 Atlantic story, “Get Off My Lawn”.
The noise and smell from gas-powered lawn equipment, leaf blowers especially, is something that has upset me for a long time.
I work from home in a beautiful, tree-lined neighborhood of [my town]. One of my neighbors, who lives four doors down, leaf blows every day. He is a nice person and a good neighbor. This is something I have endured for 16 years.
In my professional life, I have no problem speaking up for what I believe in. But on this issue, I have long felt this was a “first-world” problem and that my community’s leaders had more pressing issues to contend with. This article helped me realize this is a pressing issue as well, causing considerable harm to many. I am now in the process of organizing with several people working at all levels of government to reduce the harmful effects of gas-powered lawn equipment in our state….
I’m excited for the opportunities ahead to make change on this issue that has troubled me for so long. But I’m also a bit scared - this is something about which people are passionate, and I expect once I step out on it in a public way I will be attacked by some.
I don’t intend to let this fear of attack deter my efforts, but would appreciate any advice you might have. How do you deal with personal confrontations when working on this issue in your community? How do you respond to people who passionately disagree with you on this topic?
I have made a few attempts to inform neighbors of our community’s existing noise restriction hours, and to talk with my neighbor about his usage but it has not gone well. As I get more vocal and outspoken I worry about how to handle the direct confrontations I’m likely to experience at public meetings and on social media. I would appreciate any advice you might have in this regard.
Good and serious questions.
Our experience in Washington D.C. has been that polite, friendly presentation of facts that most people aren’t aware of does the job, over time. Most people don’t realize that two-stroke gas-powered engines are the dirtiest form of machinery still in legal use — and that lawn equipment is the main area in which this obsolete technology hangs on. Most people aren’t aware of mounting public-health concern about hearing loss, which is most serious for the crews using the equipment but affects the American population as a whole. And most people aren’t aware of the rapidly expanding options in most effective, more affordable battery-powered equipment.
As we’ve argued in the nation’s capital, mandating the shift is a matter of accelerating the inevitable. Most people agree once they’ve seen the facts.
This past weekend, the CBC’s well-known interviewer Michael Enright interviewed a Canadian chemist about why he is campaigning to get rid of, or reduce use of, gas-powered leafblowers.
The whole segment, with the title “Why do we put up with the ear-splitting obnoxiousness of leaf blowers?” is here. Sample:
Retired chemical engineer Monty McDonald… has been campaigning for a leaf blower ban for years because they cause both noise and air pollution.
McDonald worked with potential carcinogens in a chemical plant, where the safety of the workers was a top priority.
"We got the levels in that plant down to 10 parts per million in the workplace, which was the OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] standard at that time," he said in conversation with The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright.
"Now you stand near a leaf blower and you're probably getting 10,000 parts per million exposure to hydrocarbons that are in gasoline and oil, and many of them are carcinogens."
A strong editorial in the Pensacola News-Journal, by guest columnist John Herron. Samples:
Spring is in the air and commercial landscapers are revving up their gas leaf blowers. These backpack beasts blow winds faster than a hurricane, and they’re loud….
I’ve lived in all parts of the country while in the Navy, and the commercial landscaping noise in our neighborhoods is louder than anywhere else I’ve lived. Roaring blowers continuing into the night is disturbing. Two, three and four blowers operating simultaneously is too many. Eight or eleven hours of cumulative blower noise on weekends is excessive. Hours of blower noise on Sunday mornings is too much.
Each has happened near our home, and the cumulative effect was very disruptive. In each instance, we tried to talk with neighbors to reduce noise and quiet our neighborhood. Some did and I am grateful. A few defiantly refused. Gas leaf blowers have become a test whether we know how to be neighborly.
And the conclusion:
A national organization dedicated to protecting children from environmental hazards explains “communities, children, and those occupationally exposed to noise have a right to be protected.” So why wait?
I worked as a landscaper in my youth and appreciate the work landscapers perform and beauty they deliver. Some say blowers save time, but the argument disregards time stolen from the rest of us. Are policy makers bold enough to ride on the backs of dragons and save us from this menace? For now, it seems there is only us. I don’t want to slay these air blowing monsters … just tame them.
From a reader in Holland:
I cannot recall when your group began highlighting noise-producing pollution-creating leafblowers that destroyed quiet weekends in Washington and elsewhere. But I used your articles to a good end, especially as our memories of Washington iare still very dear to us.
Quite a while ago I noticed those machines introduced in our quiet street here in The Hague so I started writing to the municipality. "Yes we'll inform such and such department" was the usual reply.
Writing to some of the many environmentally sound factions in the city council recently delivered rather more positive reactions.
Lo and behold, I found city workers armed with the latest Husquarna electrical machine in our street today !
As Washington goes, so goes The Hague! At least on this point.
Over the past twenty years, more than one hundred American cities, mainly in California, passed bans or limits on the use of gas-powered leafblowers.
Now additional cities are joining the list at an accelerating pace. The latest development is from Lincoln, Massachusetts, as reported in The Lincoln Squirrel. In the storied tradition of New England small-town governance, the measure was adopted by a public vote at a town meeting, 112-106.
The Squirrel article reports:
Supporters argued that gas-powered leaf blowers are unacceptably noisy and polluting and harm Lincoln’s rural atmosphere. “Gas blowers are the most polluting machine ever made,” one resident said. …
Eric Harris, who lives near Route 2, said he doesn’t notice the highway traffic noise much, “but the difference when you have a leaf blower is enormous, not just decibels but the kind of noise it makes — it’s the kind of noise you can’t escape from. I wish this proposal had been more draconian than it is.”
“This is a reasonable solution to a problem that’s resulted in over 70 unsolicited complaints on our website,” said John Koenig, a member of the Leaf Blower Study Committee, which has been studying the issue for several years and proposed the bylaw.
Lincoln includes Walden Pond. Had Henry David Thoreau been on hand for this town meeting, there presumably would have been at least 113 Yes votes.
Update The Quiet Communities site has a nice report on this development, with the headline “Making Thoreau Proud Again.”
As more and more communities across the nation begin the shift from hyper-polluting gas-powered lawn machinery to clean, much quieter battery-powered alternatives, the practicalities of the transition become all the more important.
What’s the most practical type of battery-powered equipment? What are the costs and savings to expect? Are there significant training issues? What are the most important efficiency steps> What else will come as a surprise, good or bad?
Over the past three years, Quiet Communities a nonprofit based in Boston that has been a pioneer in sustainability and noise-reduction efforts around the country, and the California-based American Green Zone Alliance (AGZA) a leader in zero-emission grounds-maintenance strategies, have worked with the town of Southampton, New York, to convert its municipal operations to battery systems. In late March the two groups help a workshop in Southampton to help privat business prepare for the transition.
Desiree Keegan, of The Independent, wrote about the program and quoted Dan Mabe, head of the AGZA:
The switchover impacts not only quality of life, but worker health and the environment, according to Mabe. He said on average the noise profile is 50 percent less with electric than using gas-powered equipment across the board. The CEO said when converting from a two-stroke (oil-and-gas-fueled) hedge trimmer to a commercial electric trimmer, the noise profile lessens by 70 percent….
“Community health is affected as well, because if you can smell it, you’re exposed to it,” Mabe said. “On a more macro-level, there’s an environmental impact to the planet. When you have to use the chemicals and cleaners to maintain a small internal combustion engine from cradle to grave, there’s a solid-waste component to that, where there’s going to be belts, spark plugs, filters, plastic, and metal cans that really aren’t recyclable that end up in our land-waste system.”
From the AGZA web site’s coverage of the workshop, here is a photo of one of the many displays.
Developing evidence of the environmental and public-health damage done by current machinery was one indispensable step in the transition process. Convincing community leaders and local legislators that it was best for the community to make the switch, was the next step. Now comes the switch itself: showing landscape professionals and their crews, plus the customers that hire them, how to make this change work to their interest as well. Thanks to QC and AGZA for setting a strong example.
The nationwide move to phase out hyper-polluting, technologically obsolescent, dangerously noisy gas-powered leafblowers is gaining momentum. In addition to the many previous instances reported in this space, most prominently Washington DC, three new communities are preparing to join the list.
Dallas: From a story by Corbett Smith in DallasNews.com
Gas-powered leaf blowers could take the fall for Dallas’ problems with loud noises….
The city already has rules that regulate the use of lawn equipment between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. on weekdays and 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekends. But, Kingston said, “There’s a host of environmental and public health reasons not to have these around” at all.
Lancaster, California: From a story by Julie Drake in Antelope Valley Press:
The City Council will consider introducing an ordinance at Tuesday’s meeting that would require the implementation of electric-powered landscape equipment by landscape maintenance businesses within five years….
“Replacement of gasoline and diesel commercial landscaping equipment will reduce fuel consumption and spillage, exhaust emissions, noise, toxic solvents used for maintenance. As a result of this program the Antelope Valley will benefit from quieter, cleaner, and healthier neighborhoods, schools, businesses, and communities,”[City Manager Jason] Caudle’s report said.
Southampton Village, New York: From a column by Karl Grossman in Shelter Island Reporter:
Mayor Michael Irving and Trustee Kimberly Allan are sponsoring the legislation…. It limits the months (no warmer weather months) and times (no earlier than 8 a.m. or later than 6 p.m.) and days (no use on Sundays and federal and state holidays) when gas-powered leaf blowers can be used.
“It’s the new second-hand smoke,” Trustee Allan said. “Exhaust emissions from gas-powered leaf blowers can contain significant amounts of highly toxic compounds linked to certain cancers, asthma and other respiratory problems, as well as damage to the heart, lungs, and central nervous system,” notes the organization Grassroots Environmental Education. Toxins in their engine exhaust include cancer-causing benzene, toluene and formaldehyde, among other poisons.
A major city like Dallas, a medium-sized city in California’s inland “High Desert” region, Southampton Village on Long Island — these are three very different communities, to put it mildly. The trend is spreading. Congratulations to leaders in all three locales.
The village of East Hampton, New York, already has time-of-day limits on the use of gas-powered leaf blowers during summer time. Its Village Board is now considering a complete ban during the months of June, July, August, and part of September, when the area is at its peak as a vacation and resort destination.
Under existing law, between June 1 and the second Friday of December, a homeowner or tenant’s use of gas or diesel-powered lawn care equipment is limited to Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., on Saturday between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., and on Sunday and federal holidays between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. People other than the tenant or homeowner must follow the same restrictions on weekdays and Saturdays, but are also prohibited from using such equipment on Sundays and federal holidays.
The proposed law, introduced at an East Hampton Village Board meeting on March 15, would completely prohibit the use of such equipment between June 1 and Labor Day, and at all times on Sundays and federal holidays (including between Labor Day and May 31). Golf club and municipal employees who are performing their professional duties would be exempted from the prohibition, as they had been previously, provided that no leaf blowers are used within 100 feet of the nearest residence.
In the April, 2019 issue of The Atlantic, James Fallows of the magazine, and of QCDC, has an article on how the Washington D.C. City Council decided to approve a bill to phase out gas-powered leafblower use within the District, by January 1, 2022.
You can read the article, “Get Off My Lawn,” here. A sample:
When people encounter engines these days, they’re generally seeing the outcome of decades of intense work toward higher efficiency. The latest models of jet-turbine engines are up to 80 percent more fuel-efficient than their 1950s counterparts….
The great outlier here is a piece of obsolete machinery Americans encounter mainly in lawn-care equipment: the humble “two-stroke engine.”… If you’ve seen a tuk‑tuk, one of the noisy tricycle-style taxis in places such as Bangkok and Jakarta, with purple smoke wafting out of its tailpipe, you’ve seen a two-stroke engine in action.
But you won’t see as many of them in those cities anymore, because governments in Asia and elsewhere have been banning and phasing out two-stroke engines on antipollution grounds.… Two-stroke engines have largely disappeared from the scooter, moped, and trail-bike markets in America. Regulators around the world are pushing older two-stroke engines toward extinction.
Yet they remain the propulsive force behind the 200-mph winds coming out of many backpack leaf blowers. As a product category, this is a narrow one. But the impact of these little machines is significant. In 2017, the California Air Resources Board issued a warning that may seem incredible but has not been seriously challenged: By 2020, gas-powered leaf blowers, lawn mowers, and similar equipment in the state could produce more ozone pollution than all the millions of cars in California combined. Two-stroke engines are that dirty. Cars have become that clean.
As recounted on this site over the past three years, D.C. Council Member Mary Cheh took the lead in supporting this bill, and last fall it passed the D.C. Council unanimously. Supporters in D.C. hope this will be a catalyst for further action across the country.
One of the big themes of this site has been “accelerating the inevitable” — speeding the move away from obsolete, hyper-polluting, dangerously noisy gas-powered equipment, and toward fast-developing new battery-powered models.
The same revolutions in battery technology that are transforming the automotive, aviation, power-storage, and other fields will also inevitably eliminate any rationale for using antiquated gas-powered equipment. It will also ease the transition in the rapidly rising number of cities, now including the District of Columbia, that have mandated a shift to battery-powered machinery.
Here is the latest indication of where business-and-technological innovation is leading: a new, low-priced entry from Ryobi, which bills this blower as “unbelievably quiet and incredibly powerful.” The purpose of this site is of course not to promote any one company’s offerings over the others’, but instead to welcome the competition among many manufacturers, established companies and newer businesses alike, to bring more effective, less costly products to the market.
More information from Ryobi’s site, here, source of the screenshot below.