Why Are D.C. Commissions Voting for Cleaner Tech (and Against Leaf Blowers)? Here They Explain in Their Own Words.

As mentioned last month, five of Washington D.C.'s Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, the branch of government just below the City Council, have endorsed a bill sponsored by D.C. Council Member Mary Cheh to phase out the use of hyper-polluting, dangerously noisy, technologically obsolete gas-powered leafblowers in the District. You can read the text of Mary Cheh's proposed bill here.

Last week a sixth Advisory Neighborhood Commission, ANC 3B, voted its support for the bill. The previous item quoted the text of the resolution that ANC 4C had adopted. For the record, and because the logic used in setting out these measures is cumulatively very powerful, here are the texts of some of the other ANC resolutions:

ANC 3D. This was the beginning of it all, with an 8-1 supportive vote back in November of 2015. The resolution can be downloaded as PDF here, and is shown below:


ANC 2D. This was passed in December of last year. PDF of the resolution is available here, and text is shown below:


ANC 6D, in Southwest DC, including the Navy Yards. PDF here, text shown below.


ANC 3B, which voted just this month. PDF is here, text is shown below:



Congratulations, respect, and thanks to all District residents and supporters from elsewhere who have brought the measure to this point. The next move is up to the D.C. City Council to hold hearings on the measure and move ahead with it. On an issue with surprisingly significant environmental and public-health ramifications, it is encouraging to see local-level engagement moving forward.




From Australia: The Six Inventions That Shouldn't Exist


See if you can guess which device is the climax of a column on "If I had a magic wand, I'd change...." by the well-known Sydney-based columnist (and former City Councilor) Elizabeth Farrelly.  The illustration above, from the Sydney Morning Herald, may offer a clue. Here's how the column ends:

Which returns us to my sixth and final prohibition, the vile two-stroke leaf-blower, preferred power tool of dastards and dunderheads.
Back in my lofty Redfern avenue [part of Sydney] there were human sweepers, with arms and brooms and big canvas bags. They were strong and fit.
Inexplicably, here in the forest, we have the indolent leaf-blower dudes. They rev up their filthy machines, more psyche-shattering than the Dyson hand dryer and more polluting (per erg) than the car. For an hour or two they whoosh the leaves around. Then they depart – whereupon nature whooshes the old ones right back.
This is clearly futile, as well as lazy, dirty and irritating. I'd tell you more about how all this outdoing nature symbolises the hole we blew in our culture, only I just can't hear myself think.

In another part of the column, Farrelly writes about larger questions of "cleansing," an extreme version of which is the power-blowing of lawns and driveways:

Judaism, Shinto, Hindu, Christianity, Islam; count the religions that involve ritual cleansing. Ablution and oblation are not identical, but they're mighty close. Our cleansing should connect us to the joys of planetary existence – water, breezes, light. Instead, we shrink ritual back to mere utility.

Worth reading; congrats to Ms. Farrelly.

Mary Cheh's Bill to Phase out Gas-Powered Leaf Blowers in Washington D.C.

Over the past two years, civic groups, newspaper and broadcast reports and editorials, health experts, and Advisory Neighborhood Commissions in Washington D.C. have urged the City Council to move the District away from use of hyper-polluting, dangerously noisy, technologically obsolescent gas-powered lawn equipment. You can read about some of the ANCs that have acted here, see some of the public-health and environmental-justice arguments for the change here, and sign a petition for hearings on the bill here.

For reference on the bill itself,  below you can see the official text of the bill proposed by Council member Mary Cheh, who has long played a prominent role in environmental policies in the District. For a downloadable PDF version of the bill, please click here.

Here is the text of Council Member Cheh's bill:


Landscape Management magazine on the Shift to Battery-Powered Equipment

From Landscape Management magazine.

From Landscape Management magazine.

In a new supplement to the industry magazine Landscape ManagementLauren Dowdle has an article called "BATTERY BOON: How battery-powered equipment is helping operators save energy, win bids and go green."

It includes stories of landscaping companies that have switched away from hyper-polluting gas-powered leaf blowers and other equipment to battery-powered alternatives. Sample:

With 90 percent of his equipment being electric, Ron Rose—owner of EQ Grounds in Auburn Hills, Mich.—says it has helped set the company apart....

He decided to rely heavily on electric mainly because of the gas and maintenance savings.

“After you pay off the equipment, there are pretty significant savings, considering you have to pay about $30 a day for one gas mower. You can run for less than $5 a day with an electric mower,” Rose says.

Electric equipment also has helped differentiate the company from its competition.

“It gives you a little bit of an advantage,” he says. “People are receptive to eco-friendly and low noise.”

All along, the argument for Council member Mary Cheh's bill in Washington D.C., and its counterparts around the country, is that they are "accelerating the inevitable," in forcing a change away from an outdated, inefficient, and hyper-polluting technology, to a fast-developing clean alternative. This feature in a major industry publication is another sign that the industry itself is ready for the change.

Five ANCs Endorse Washington DC's Anti-Leaf Blower Bill

Council member Mary Cheh, of the Washington D.C. City Council, has introduced bill B22-0234, to phase out the use of gas-powered leaf blowers in the nation's capital. Four other council members -- Charles Allen, David Grosso, Kenyan McDuffie, and Anita Bonds -- have signed on as co-sponsors.

The bill has been referred to the council's Committee of the Whole; the next step is for the council's chair, Phil Mendelson, to schedule hearings -- and a Change.org petition urging Mendelson to do just that has gained nearly 800 signatures. (Feel free to add yours!). 

The recent political history of this bill begins back in the fall of 2015, when one of the District's Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs), the level of government just below the council, voted 8-1 in favor of such a provision. That was ANC 3D. 

Since then, four more ANCs have endorsed the measure. They are ANCs 4C, 2D, 6D, and 5B, with presentations and votes by others ahead. Getting approval meeting by meeting, in different parts of the town, is no small achievement in local-level political engagement.

Why are the local commissions doing so? The text of the resolution approved by ANC 4C, chaired by Zach Teutsch, illustrates the reasoning the others have applied:


Congratulations and thanks to the ANC members who have considered and voted on these measures, and to the QCDC representatives who have carefully and successfully explained the reasons behind this step. Now the action moves back to the council as a whole. Council Chair Mendelson: it's time for hearings!

More on the Effects of Low-Frequency Noise

Last month we noted a new paper in the Journal of Environmental and Toxicological Studies, on why the noise from leaf blowers, in particular, was so powerful and penetrating.

The Quiet Communities web site has an update on this same paper, highlighting its implications -- including what it means for human beings (or animals) that are both very close to the equipment, and very far away.

For those in very close range, leafblowers can produce sound-at-ear-level of 100 decibels or more, well into the damaging range. And for those many hundreds of yards away, the low-frequency noise typical of leafblowers can penetrate walls, windows, and other barriers that would stop different kinds of sound. The Quiet Communities post quotes Erica Walker, author with Jamie Banks of the journal article:

Sound from leaf blowers and a hose vacuum—equipment commonly used in landscape maintenance—was over 100 dbA at the source and decreased over distance. However, the low frequency component persisted at high levels. “From a community perspective, the sound ratings supplied by manufacturers do not take frequency into consideration,” said Walker.  “Our findings suggest that reporting more information on a sound’s character may be a step in the right direction,” she adds. 

Worth reading in full.

On the Significance of Noise, and of Silence

From The Sun magazine, in 2010.

From The Sun magazine, in 2010.

Most of the discussion and data on this site concern the less-publicized and often under-appreciated problems arising from use of primitive two-stroke gas-powered leaf blowers and other lawn equipment. These include their grossly polluting nature; the long-term hearing damage and other health risks they impose on the workers who use them; the fine-particulate pollution they create for surrounding neighborhoods; and their simple obsolescence in the face of better alternatives. 

But the most obvious drawback of leaf blowers in particular is their exceptional noisiness. Last month a paper in a public-health journal explained why some of the acoustic qualities of leaf blower noise make it spread over so great a distance, and allow it to penetrate walls and windows that block out most other sounds.  

And an article from 2010 in The Sun magazine offers a fascinating perspective on the larger questions of noise and quiet in modern life. The article, which is an interview by Leslee Goodman with the "acoustic ecologist" Gordon Hempton, whose speciality is the environmental, physiological, and social effect of increasing ambient noise.

The whole article is very much worth reading. Two sample passages:

Goodman: Before we were urbanized, we needed to be able to hear the snap of a twig in the woods, because it might mean a predator was approaching. Now our hearing brings us mostly unwanted noise, so we walk around with iPods in our ears or with the radio blasting in our cars. We don’t want to hear our environment.

Hempton: Yes, many people use their iPods to avoid hearing the noise pollution all around them. Our ancestors took quiet for granted; they never imagined that we’d lose it. Now we must recognize that we’ve largely lost quiet, even in our most pristine, natural places. But we can still choose to value quiet more as a culture.

Goodman: What would you say to someone who, rather than visiting silence in nature, simply puts on noise-canceling headphones in his or her loft apartment and listens to a recording of a natural soundscape?

Hempton: I would say that real listening is about being where you are. We escape our surroundings by putting on sounds that help us feel as if we were someplace else, but studies have shown that masking stressful noise is not a remedy. If you’re in an unhealthy place, you shouldn’t forget it.


Goodman: What are the health benefits of quiet?

Hempton: Virtually all of the research that’s been done — about five thousand articles — has been on the damaging effects of noise. There’s very little research on the effects of quiet, partly because there’s so little quiet available.

What has been done suggests that quiet helps people relax, makes them more willing to help others, and enables them to do better on tests and to get a good night’s sleep. Research with children who have attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder shows that experiencing quiet in nature is as effective for them as medication.

Goodman: What are some steps the average person can take to create less noise and to find silence?

Hempton: First of all, listen. Become more aware. Second, protect your hearing. The most readily available hearing protection is your fingers, but people like to have their hands free, so I recommend earplugs. Foam earplugs are inexpensive and can be used several times....

Third, speak out for your right to quiet. Too often people believe there’s nothing they can do about noise — it’s part of the community they live in — but it’s important to let people who are creating loud noise know how it’s affecting you. Tell your noisy neighbors the ways in which their noise is decreasing your quality of life, and let them know what you are doing to reduce your own noise making.

Goodman: I think people try to tune out offending noise because they want to avoid conflict with others.

Hempton: We’re living in a world where we’re sharing resources, and one of the most shared is the acoustic environment — even more so than the visual environment. And yet there are few codes that affect the acoustic characteristics of a community. Noise-abatement walls along interstates reduce noise very little. The issue of noise pollution could unify communities.

Key Biscayne Makes a Move Toward Quieter Equipment -- and Wastes No Time About It

According to a story in the Islander News, the Village Council in Key Biscayne, Florida, voted for a switch from noisy, dirty gas-powered leaf blowers to electric models -- and it gave residents and contractors exactly 180 days to make the change. For comparison: the bill the D.C. City Council is considering toward the same end would allow a transition period of as much as five years. (For contractors, the usable life span of gas blowers is much shorter than that, so they'd be replacing the equipment during that period in any case.)

The Islander News headline:

From the Islander News.

From the Islander News.

The story says:

Earlier this year the Village Council passed an ordinance banning gas-powered blowers, noting they’re a major source of noise complaints and also cause significant air pollution. In passing the measure, the Council set a 180-day grace period that expires February 25, 2018....

At a December 12 Council meeting, Development Services Director Sergio Ascunce described the options landscapers have to comply with the new rule.

He noted there are battery-powered leaf blowers that can be used, explaining, “This is going to be the most beneficial type of equipment for the professional. It’s the most powerful, and it’s the longest-lasting in terms of battery life.”

He added the Village’s landscaping contractor, Gorgeous Lawns, agreed in November to make the switch.

The company has found the equipment is beneficial in terms of lowering pollution and noise – “There is no engine idling, and while in operation they’re at a lower decibel level,” Ascunce said – but its concerns included finding a place to charge batteries, the cost of replacement batteries and trouble moving wet clippings because the battery blowers aren’t as powerful.

These practical transition concerns are of course real -- and more likely to be addressed, the faster the market for electric equipment grows.

From Australia to California to Virginia, Leaf Blower Updates


Photo above is a screenshot from Australia's ABC, of "blow-dryers" being called into service on a cricket field in Perth.

Virginia, USA: A letter to the editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, from Alan Lott.

Gas-powered leaf blowers in Richmond and surrounding counties should be banned. The fumes and noise from them pose a health risk not only to operators, but to the community as a whole. In Washington, there is a group called “QuietClean D.C.” that has spearheaded legislation to phase out gas-powered leaf blowers and shift to quieter electric models.

This noise is harmful not only to humans, but to pets as well. Research has attributed instances of hypertension, risk of heart attack, and central nervous system disorders to the high decibels that leaf blowers put out. Leaf blowers, chainsaws, and rock concerts all have decibels ranging from 105 db to 115 db. According to the Centers for Disease Control, ear damage from this level of noise can be caused in 7.5 minutes. Your pet’s hearing is even more sensitive.

Two-stroke engines are unlike cleaner car engines. They aren’t regulated and they put out high levels of ozone-forming chemicals and fine particulate matter that are known to cause or contribute to cardiovascular disease, asthma, lung cancer, and others conditions. Even landscapers who operate the blowers are at risk from breathing in the fumes.

It’s past time for Richmonders and residents of neighboring counties to wake up to problems caused by gas-powered blowers and two-stroke engines. We need to form a QuietClean group here to push for legislation that will phase out gas-powered leaf blowers and create quite communities.


California, USA:


Via Twitter

'No place in civilized society'

The editorial board of the Star-Ledger in New Jersey, writing at NJ.Com, is not fooling around. The headline gets right to the point:


The editorial goes into the pros and cons, including a recent summertime ban on gas-powered leafblowers in on New Jersey town: 

We are not unsympathetic to the lawn care industry. There are thousands of New Jerseyans employed in the mow-blow-and-go business, and everyone who straps on a Stihl 600 backpack will tell you that it's a crucial tool for their work.

But contractors should be grateful the gas models are only banned for five months....

And, on the sense of power and freedom equipment like this can bring:

No doubt, some of us must express ourselves by wielding earsplitting power tools, and surrender to the manly impulse to wage battle with a dense and leafy pile, as the smoke billows above the tree line - signaling to friend and foe alike that we are alive and blowing.

And the truth is, this is how many of us would choose to clean indoors as well, because it involves blasting things from one place to another place to another without actually having to pick them up, and has been proven to work with both empty pizza boxes and stray Doritos.

The whole thing is very much worth reading. New Jersey's reputation for directness shows off to great advantage here.

'Leaf Blower Man: A Love Story'

Bill O'Neil, a film director and musician in Chicago, has produced a video about leaf blower adventures in his neighborhood. Dig right in!

O'Neil even gets into the modern-tech alternatives to old-tech hyper-polluting gas-powered leafblowers, as you will see in this later part of the video, cued to start around time 2:55:

O'Neil ends with a crowd-sourcing appeal, which has a jokey purpose involving lawn equipment and a larger public-health and world-environmental purpose. The donation page is here. I was persuaded to give.

Well done by Bill O'Neil. 

Why Do Leaf Blowers Sound the Way They Do?

Studies collected on this site describe the overlapping reasons for communities to move beyond two-stroke gas-powered outdoor equipment:

  • These inefficient engines are hyper-polluting, putting out more hydrocarbon emissions of certain sorts than do cars that can weigh 100 times as much.
  • The small-particulate emissions they produce, and the haze of particulates that their high-speed winds blow up from the ground, are hazardous to the community in general and especially to the workers who spend hours each day within breathing range of the equipment.
  • Radically cleaner, safer, quieter less-polluting options are available, with the rapidly improving technology of battery powered equipment. In almost every other realm in which two-stroke engines once prevailed, from scooters to watercraft, they have largely been banned or simply overtaken by modern alternatives.

Beyond all this, the most obvious trait of leaf blowers in particular is their noise. In a new paper for the Journal of Environmental and Toxicological Studies, published at the scientific site Sci Forschen, Erica Walker and Jamie Banks argue that there is something distinctive about the auditory qualities of leafblowers that makes their sound-footprint so dominant and potentially dangerous.

A major theme of their paper is that the most disruptive component of leafblower noise is its low-frequency sound waves--rather than the high-frequency sounds that come from, for example, a dental drill. A high-frequency whine can obviously be annoying. But low-frequency sound waves travel a much greater distance, and pose a greater health risk. As Walker and Banks put it, (emphasis added):

According to manufacturer reports, the sound pressure levels of these machines exceed 95 A-weighted decibels (dB[A]) at the ear of the operator [a level at which regular exposure can cause permanent hearing loss] and typically 65-80 dB(A) at 50 feet. Comparing these levels to daytime sound standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO)- these levels are upwards of 15 dB(A) higher than the recommended 55 dB(A)....

Adverse health effects from sound include auditory effects such as hearing loss and tinnitus, and non auditory effects such as reduced cognitive performance and mental health, sleep disruption, ischemic heart disease, myocardial infarction, and hypertension. Low frequency sound components are considered to have more severe adverse health effects compared with higher frequency components. Adverse effects from sources of sound with low frequency components may occur at levels below 30 dB(A). Lower decibel standards are recommended for sources with low frequency components compared with other sources.

Read the full study for more details. At face value one implication is that the unmuffled two-stroke engines that proliferate in many neighborhoods are dangerous most of all to the workers using them. But another that the long-term damage to the surrounding community may be even greater than standard measures indicate, because the low-frequency waves travel farther than other kinds of sound, and can do more harm to those in their path.