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More on gas-powered leaf blower controversy

The BWNA Board passed a resolution encouraging residents to explore alternatives to gas-powered leaf blowers via the Quiet Clean PDX (QCPDX) website (www.quietcleanpdx.org). Attached below is a "white paper" on the issue by Jamie Banks, head of QCPD national affiliate Quiet Communities (www.quietcommunities.org), which is headquartered in Massachusetts.

Quiet Communities White Paper:

Exposure to 100 decibel noise is 15 minutes [41-42]).5 Landscapers operate GLBs for hours a day, several days a week, often in groups of 2 or more, thereby exposing themselves and members of the public to chronic levels of harmful noise (see video [43]). The adverse effects of such noise on hearing and our general health is well documented and include heart disease, sleep disturbance, psychological, cognitive and learning problems, and metabolic abnormalities [9-10]. Noise in excess of 60 decibels increases risk of heart disease [10]. In addition, GLB noise has a strong low frequency component, enabling it to travel long distances and penetrate walls and windows [44-46]. Low frequency noise is of special concern to health, as stated in the WHO Guidelines on Community Noise [47]. A single GLB can affect 90-100 homes in a densely populated neighborhood [48] with harmful noise levels (≥55 decibels, defined by WHO and EPA [47, 49]). People especially affected by GLB noise include people working from home, children schooling at home, night workers (including first responders and health care workers), those affected with autism and sensory processing disorders, and veterans and others with post-traumatic stress disorder [13, 50-52].

  1. GLBs and spread of COVID-19 and other diseases. Preliminary studies from Italy have found the presence of the COVID-19 virus on coarse airborne particulates, raising the possibility that airborne particulates contributed to the rapid spread of COVID-19 in hard-hit regions of that country [53-54]. In addition, a study of landscape workers in Martha’s Vineyard showed that those operating leaf blowers were at increased risk for tularemia (a contagious, potentially life-threatening bacterial infection), presumably due to the aerosolization of the bacteria and infected materials [55]. A recent study from China suggests that strong airflow from a restaurant air conditioning system helped spread the COVID-19 virus [56]. These studies raise the possibility that air flow from GLBs is a source of transmission for COVID-19.

  2. GLBs harm the environment, wildlife, and ecosystems. GLBs consume hundreds of millions of gallons of gasoline every year, generate tens of millions of tons of CO2, spill tens of millions of gallons of fuel into soil and storm drains, and add toxic, non-recyclable waste to landfills [6, 57-59]. The high velocity air jets of GLBs destroy nests and habitats, desiccate pollen, sap, other natural plant substances, and injure or destroy birds, small mammals, and beneficial insects that live in the leaf litter [33, 60-61]. Instead of nurturing our landscapes, GLBs damage plants, remove beneficial topsoil and mulch, and desiccate soil. In fact, experts say that leaving grass clippings and leaves in place is actually beneficial to the environment and healthy for the lawn [62-63].

  3. Non-compliant and excessive use of GLBs compound the threat. Landscapers routinely violate industry recommendations and local government regulations on the proper use of GLBs [28-29, 64]. As noted above, instead of using just one at a time, it is common to see two, three or more GLBs used simultaneously, even on small properties. Moreover, instead of running these machines at the lowest possible throttle to reduce noise and dust, GLBs are typically run at full throttle, generating tremendous noise and large clouds of ground particulate matter and dust [64]. Landscapers are also using GLBs more frequently and not just for large cleanups or leaf removal. In many parts of the country, landscapers are using GLBs every week to blow grass clippings—a practice that, as noted above, is unnecessary and environmentally unsound. Landscapers have also been spotted using these machines for unusual/inappropriate tasks such as sand and snow removal (see videos [65-66]). These practices have even raised the concern of a major industry lobbyist who recommends the use of quieter blowers [64].

5 The decibel scale is logarithmic. Small increases in decibel level mean sharp decreases in permissible exposure times. Current State of Leaf Blower Regulation Two hundred cities/towns across the U.S. have already enacted some form of legislation to restrict or ban the use of GLBs (Exhibit B). In addition, four counties (one each in Arizona, California, Maryland and Virginia) have done the same. The state of Hawaii has statewide restrictions on use [67] and has considered banning them entirely [68], as have California and Illinois, more recently [69-70]. Ann Arbor, MI has banned all 2-stroke engines in its downtown area [71]. But many other jurisdictions have failed to act—and health professionals are concerned. Major health and environmental organizations, including the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [41], the American Lung Association, the National Institutes of Health, physician groups in California, New York (Exhibit C), and Utah, and various medical societies, have warned against their use and/or the use of gas-powered lawn and garden equipment. The Medical Society of the State of New York and the Massachusetts Medical Society have both passed resolutions discouraging the use of GLBs because of their detrimental effects on workers and public health (Exhibit D). How Can We Permanently Transition to Cleaner, Quieter, Healthier Practices? Transitioning to cleaner, quieter, healthier equipment is a 3-step process, one that provides immediate benefits to the community while simultaneously giving landscapers time to acquire and adapt to greener technology. Step 1. Adopt an emergency moratorium on GLBs (and ideally, on the use of electric/battery blowers too) (see Part II above). Step 2: Ban the use of GLBs during “summer” and “winter” months. Policymakers should encourage municipalities to adopt a ban on the use of any GLBs, EXCEPT for two brief periods in the spring and fall to allow for large seasonal cleanups. As noted above, blowing grass clippings weekly (i.e., the primary purpose of summer use) is not only unnecessary, it negatively affects lawn, soil, and plant health [63]. Similarly, the weekly blowing of dust and debris or the winter blowing of snow, especially with 200+ mph air jets, is unnecessary, hazardous to health, and contrary to industry recommendations [28-29, 64]. Rakes and brooms (possibly supplemented with electric/battery blowers,) represents a practical alternative for routine clean-up work. Street sweepers, not leaf blowers, should be used to safely remove sand from roads in northern states. We note that such a ban on GLBs should not affect the cost of weekly service. By abandoning weekly blowing with GLBs, landscapers will save time (i.e., lower labor costs) and money (i.e., lower fuel and maintenance costs). In fact, those savings can offset the price of larger clean-ups with greener (zero emissions, low noise) equipment and may allow landscapers to service more customers and/or become more profitable. This could be a triple win: for the public, landscapers, and the environment. Step 3. Phase Out the Use of GLBs Entirely. In addition to the moratorium and ban described above, policymakers should encourage municipalities to adopt regulations that phase out the use of GLBs entirely (i.e., ban GLBs even for large seasonal cleanups). Such a ban should be phased in over a sufficient period (e.g., 18-24 months) to give landscapers time to transition to greener and healthier alternatives. The American Green Zone Alliance (AGZA) actively assists municipalities, schools, and businesses in transitioning to zero emissions, low noise practices. According to AGZA President, Dan Mabe, the operating costs of battery/electric equipment are a fraction of the costs of gas equipment because of avoided fuel and maintenance costs [58]. And those savings can help defray the cost of new, greener equipment. However, the initial high capital cost of establishing battery banks adequate for commercial workloads and the need for proper training of operators must be taken into consideration. To help finance that transition, landscapers could charge a small premium for green landscaping (including hand raking)—at least initially. Many clients who use landscaping services can afford this and many people, when surveyed, have indicated they are willing to pay a bit more for quieter/cleaner landscaping [72]. Crowdsourcing is another potential source of funding. In addition, municipalities, donors, and other stakeholders can establish financial incentives and loan programs to help landscapers transition. At the same time, nonprofits and other experts can (i) guide the selection of the “right” equipment, (ii) educate and train workers (e.g., safety, charging infrastructure, operation, care), and (iii) demonstrate how Return on Investment can be achieved and profitability increased. All stakeholders should help raise awareness of the dangers of GLBs and the need for cleaner, quieter, and healthier equipment. There is no doubt this can be accomplished. Today, around 200 companies operate exclusively with electric- or battery-operated machines and/or manual tools [73] and entire municipalities and school districts are operating with electric and manual tools for all routine maintenance. These cities and schools have been certified as AGZA Green Zones® and have substantially reduced toxic and carcinogenic emissions, noise, waste, and carbon dioxide.

Conclusion The new and serious threats posed by the COVID-19 pandemic highlight the dangers posed by GLBs and require immediate intervention. The pollution and noise discharged by these machines are hazardous to the health of workers, the public, and the environment. Policy makers need to take immediate action to stop their use during the pandemic and also take steps to transition the industry to cleaner, quieter, healthier equipment and practices through appropriate policies and regulation.



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