A Quality Of Life And Public Health Issue
I live on a charming cul de sac in South Dover. We purchased our home last April, and I feel privileged to live in such a nice neighborhood with friendly people in a desirable location. Our neighborhood was developed starting in the nineteen eighties, and unlike newer developments today, many mature trees were left here, giving us a diverse array of birds and wildlife. My lot in particular has many native species that provide food and habitat to several species of songbirds. It is immeasurably pleasant to open windows on a nice day and listen to the sounds of woodpeckers, bluebirds, goldfinches and the like.
Unfortunately, during these warm months the peace and calm of my neighborhood is interrupted on a near daily basis, for hours at a time, and many times more than once a day. It is rare to have a day during the Spring, Summer, or Fall season that I do not hear the high decibel whine of at least one or more commercial gas leaf blowers (GLBs) being used on neighboring lots. As I write this, I am an hour and a half into listening to a landscaping crew hired by neighbors on the other side of our circle. The front of my home faces them, yet I can still hear them in the back of my home even with windows and doors shut. Now they’ve taken a break and I can hear another GLB somewhere in the neighborhood behind me as well. I must be honest, it’s incredibly irritating and distracting.
Landscape maintenance machines (mowers, leaf blowers) operate at levels up to 110 decibels – these levels far exceed the safe levels established by the World Health Organization, US Environmental Protection Agency, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health for the prevention of hearing loss and other adverse health effects.
I’ve observed workers operating GLBs without any hearing protection on many occasions, including employees of the city of Dover. Clearly worker health is a concern, as is that of the public. Many Dover residents work from home, work nights and sleep during the day, have young infants and toddlers who may be napping, or are disabled or convalescing from illness and so are subjected to this excessive noise, often for long periods. The crew across the way from me is now going on hour number four. Today is 70 degrees and sunny, with a light breeze. I am keeping my windows and doors closed because of the noise level. After a long New Hampshire winter, I’d prefer to have them open. I was informed by one of the staff at the Planning Department that Dover does not have any type of noise ordinance in place. Given the widespread use of GLBs and landscaping equipment from April through November, it seems reasonable that we should at the very least have some type of protection for residents subjected to these excessively high decibel levels. Noise is more than just a nuisance. Plenty of scientific research provides evidence on the relationship between environmental noise and health effects, including cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment, sleep disturbance, tinnitus, and annoyance.
In addition to the harmful decibel levels GLBs and other landscape maintenance machines create, another important concern is emissions. Gasoline powered lawn and garden equipment account for a significant portion of U.S. non road gasoline emissions that contribute to the acceleration of climate change. The two stroke engine of a GLB has no emission control. In a two stroke engine the fuel has to be mixed with oil because it lacks an independent lubrication system. About 30 percent of the fuel the engine uses fails to undergo complete combustion. As a result the engine emits numerous air pollutants like carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides and hydrocarbons. These pollutants escape from the engine in large quantities. Most of us are quite familiar with the acute effects of carbon monoxide, but the other gases are no less worrisome. Nitrous oxides and hydrocarbons both contribute to smog formation. Hydrocarbons are carcinogenic, and nitrous oxides cause acid rain. These engines also emit benzene, toluene, 1-3 butadiene, acetaldehyde and formaldehyde. At least two of these are known carcinogens. GLBs According to tests conducted by Edmunds’ InsideLine.com, a consumer-grade leaf blower emits more pollutants than a 6,200-pound 2011 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor. Jason Kavanagh, Engineering Editor at edmunds.com has stated, “The hydrocarbon emissions from a half-hour of yard work with the two-stroke leaf blower are about the same as a 3,900-mile drive from Texas to Alaska in a Raptor. As ridiculous as it may sound, it is more ‘green’ to ditch your yard equipment and find a way to blow leaves using a Raptor.” Meanwhile, the landscaping crew is still here, six hours later. They did break for lunch at least, and to mow and use a large vacuum attachment on their truck that caused enormous plumes of brown dust to come out of the cover on the back of the truck.
Speaking of particulate matter, GLBs certainly kick up their fair share of the stuff. Dust, pollen, heavy metals like lead, fecal matter, and pesticides get launched into the air where they can linger for hours or even longer. The US EPA says; “Particulate matter (PM), also known as particle pollution, is a complex mixture of extremely small particles and liquid droplets that get into the air. Once inhaled, these particles can affect the heart and lungs and cause serious health effects.” According to research from NYU Langone Medical Center in 2016, the annual economic cost of the nearly 16,000 premature births linked to air pollution in the United States has reached $4.33 billion. The number of premature births in the U.S. surpasses the rates in other developed nations. Even small amounts of particulate matter, below the levels set as safe by the EPA are shown to increase risk of intrauterine inflammation in pregnant women. This condition is linked to many negative health outcomes for their children, like neurodevelopmental disorders and asthma. These disorders last a lifetime.
The mow and blow crew have finally knocked off for the day, and it’s blessedly quiet here again. I hope that this brief overview helps you understand the depth of a problem I was unaware of for a long time. ‘Leaf blowers blow air, right? No harm there!’ Well, I was wrong because I was uninformed. But in today’s world we have an obligation to be informed, and to take action to change things that we can.
Things Individuals Can Do To Help
- If you need to hire a landscaper, ask them to use rakes and brooms. Even better, ask them to mulch mow the leaves in place during the fall – this means less trips hauling leaves for them, and better soil plus lawn weed suppression for you. And even if you don’t hire a landscaper, you can still mulch mow them your self.
- Use electric lawn equipment. They are quiet, less polluting, and require less maintenance in addition to being comparably priced with gas equipment.
- Skip a step by using a leaf sweeper. A long forgotten but useful gardening tool, a leaf sweeper will pick up and bag leaves all in one step. They work on driveways and sidewalks too. Human powered, they cost nothing to operate, are quiet and do not pollute. They are also available in large models if you have a lot of area to clear.
- Educate others. Now that you are informed about this needless form of pollution, let others know so they can also make better choices in the future. Setting a good example is sometimes all that is needed to start a conversation. Your neighbors may notice that yard work is now taking less time for you, and your lawn and flower beds look healthier. You have an opportunity to be ‘the Joneses’ in a way that benefits everyone.
Burden of disease from environmental noise – Quantification of healthy life years lost in Europe http://www.who.int/quantifying_ehimpacts/publications/e94888/en/
National Emissions from Lawn and Garden Equipment https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-09/documents/banks.pdf
Leaf Blower’s Emissions Dirtier than High-Performance Pick-Up Truck’s, Says Edmunds’ InsideLine.com https://www.edmunds.com/about/press/leaf-blowers-emissions-dirtier-than-high-performance-pick-up-trucks-says-edmunds-insidelinecom.html
IARC Monographs http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Classification/latest_classif.php
Yearly cost of US premature births linked to air pollution: $4.33 billion https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/03/160329101031.htm
Even a little air pollution may have long-term health effects on developing fetus https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/04/160427095207.htm
More Pollution Than Cars? Gas-Powered Gardening Equipment Poses the Next Air Quality Threat https://ww2.kqed.org/news/2017/02/13/more-pollution-than-cars-gas-powered-gardening-equipment-poses-the-next-air-quality-threat/
Photos by Pollinator Friendly Landscaping