By Vivian Thomson and Kit Gage
Thomson is a retired professor of environmental policy at the University of Virginia and producer of the independent podcast The Meaning of Green. Gage is Advocacy Chair for Friends of Sligo Creek and a Chesapeake Bay landscape professional.
By deciding to shelve a proposal to ban the sale and use of gas-powered leaf blowers, Montgomery County Council is putting the health of its citizens and especially its lawn care workers at risk. , many of whom are people of color.
The Council’s Transportation and Environment Committee voted in favor of the proposal, but the full Council tabled it, meaning the proposal is on hold. Those who voted to file the proposal said the rebate program to help companies buy battery-powered equipment lacked sufficient detail. They also raised questions about the timing of the sale and use bans.
This indefinite delay means landscape workers operating gas-powered leaf blowers will continue to experience preventable health risks, including hearing loss. In 2022, 44% of landscaping workers nationwide were Hispanic or Latino.
Measured sound levels from gas-powered leaf blowers reach 75 decibels at 50 feet and 95 to 105 decibels at the operator’s ears. Just yesterday, a lawn care worker was using a gas-powered leaf blower across the street. At a distance of about 50 feet, the NIOSH sound meter app showed 78 decibels, which far exceeds the county’s current standard of 65 decibels.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, you can experience ear damage after a two-hour exposure to a leaf blower blowing at 90 decibels. Leaf blower users are the noisiest and many do not wear protective equipment. The nationwide Professional Landcare Network said in 2011 that its members should measure equipment noise levels or, if that’s not possible, “institute a hearing conservation program.”
The low-frequency component of noise produced by gas-powered leaf blowers penetrates windows and carries much further than the noise generated by battery-powered leaf blowers. A credible estimate indicates that, in a neighborhood with 1/8 acre zoning, a typical gas-powered leaf blower could disturb 90 homes while the quietest battery-powered fan tested would disturb only one home.
Hearing loss can be insidious and occur before we even know it. But noise pollution is not only annoying, disruptive and bad for our ears. Continuous exposure to noise pollution can cause high blood pressure, heart disease, anxiety and depression. The World Health Organization adds cognitive impairment in children to this list and estimates that at least 1 million years of healthy life are lost each year in Europe solely due to noise exposure from traffic.
The air pollution that leaf blowers pump out includes fine particles, nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. People of color are already disproportionately exposed to the long list of risks posed by fine particulate pollution, simply because of where they live. They shouldn’t have to deal with additional, preventable health issues at work.
For the sake of all this air pollution, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) has banned the sale of most new small “off-road” gasoline engines (including leaf blowers) beginning in 2024. CARB estimates that small off-road-on-road engines emit more nitrogen oxides and reactive organic gases than the state’s light-duty passenger cars. CARB claims that using a backpack leaf blower for an hour produces ozone-forming pollution comparable to that produced by driving a car from Los Angeles to Denver.
Maryland could adopt California’s zero-emissions requirement for new small off-road engines. Other states are already following California’s lead. A bill to ban the sale of new gas-powered lawn care appliances is pending in the New York State Senate. Adopting the California rules could help Maryland meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals and accelerate compliance with Clean Air Act ozone standards. Reducing nitrogen oxide air pollution is important to the health of the bay’s watershed. It is estimated that 1/3 of the nitrogen load in the watershed comes from the air.
In proposing a ban on the sale and use of gas-powered leaf blowers, Montgomery County Council is not pushing back any political envelope. Many cities and counties, including the District of Columbia, have led the way, providing countless examples from which to learn. For example, California has adopted a voucher program that reduces the cost of battery-powered equipment at the point of sale. Some California locations complete this voucher program.
The Council needs to put its leaf blower ban back on its active agenda and resolve the issues that led to this impasse. The health and safety of the citizens of Montgomery County, especially its landscape workers, are at stake.