How we can move away from gas-powered leaf blowers (Town Square)
by Peter Holm
This month, the Township Council is considering changes to Montclair’s leaf-blower law. The effort is timely. Since the law was last updated in 2000, we have learned a great deal about the harms caused by the use of gas-powered leaf blowers (GLBs), and a revolution in battery technology has made cleaner, safer tools widely available. The public interest demands a transition. The question is how to get there.
Cleaner air. Because their two-stroke engines run on a mixture of gasoline and oil, GLBs produce especially toxic exhaust, including large amounts of unburned fuel, fine particulate matter and compounds known to cause or exacerbate cancer, heart disease, asthma and problems in pregnancy, among other concerns.
The aerosols can hover above the ground for hours or days, invisibly exposing children and other residents long after the blowing has stopped. The amounts are shocking: In just one hour, a typical commercial GLB generates as much smog-forming pollution as driving a Toyota Camry 1,100 miles, according to California air pollution regulators.
Quieter neighborhoods. GLBs produce high-intensity, low-frequency noise that poses clear risks to operators and others. Commercial machines routinely exceed 100 decibels at the operator’s ear, which can cause permanent hearing loss in 15 minutes. Unlike four-stroke lawn mowers, two-stroke GLBs produce a great deal of low-frequency noise that carries over long distances and can easily be heard indoors.
A crew operating multiple blowers is loud enough to exceed the EPA community noise standard for 800 feet in all directions. Ambient noise at this level has been shown to disrupt concentration and cognition, productivity and the ability to learn.
Worker health and safety. Although GLBs pose risks to all community members, it is the workers operating these machines for hours each day who face the greatest risks from the clouds of pollutants, the spray of unburned fuel and the ear-splitting noise. They are often immigrants working for low wages, with no health insurance and little job security as the cumulative effects of chronic exposure mount.
Cleaner, safer tools. Battery-electric leaf blowers, including high-performance commercial models produced by leading manufacturers like Husqvarna and Stihl, have become readily available. Far quieter than their gas counterparts, they offer lower operating costs and vastly reduced health risks for employees and the public.
Rakes and other manual tools are also highly effective for many applications. Simply allowing grass clippings to break down in place and mulch-mowing fallen leaves into the lawn do wonders for soil health.
How do we transition? Quiet Montclair, an education and advocacy group organized by local residents, urges the council to:
- Reduce the springtime use period to April, effective this year. We recognize the desire to use GLBs to conduct “spring cleanup” activities, but the four months allowed by current law are excessive. In March, snow cover is common, and pollinators and other beneficial wildlife are still using fallen leaves as habitat. By May, warm-season plants are actively growing and spring cleanup time is over.
- Phase in a year-round ban on GLBs. Given the serious harms that GLBs cause and the availability of good alternatives, a year-round ban is the simplest and best long-term solution. It would achieve more harm reduction than a seasonal ban and eliminate confusion about when GLB use is allowed. A two-year phase-in would provide ample time to plan for the transition to battery equipment. Municipalities in Westchester County, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere have recently enacted year-round bans. Princeton partnered with a local nonprofit and won a $55,000 grant to support transition efforts. We would like to see Montclair show similar ingenuity and leadership.
- Adopt penalties that will effectively deter violations. In Maplewood, fines start at $500 for commercial entities, rising for repeated violations. Maplewood Councilwoman Nancy Adams has reported that residents there now enjoy the quiet summer days that used to be the norm, largely free of the telltale leaf-blower roar. Landscapers continue to do a fine business.
- Work with the township to ensure effective enforcement. Montclair already bans GLB use from July to September, but who could tell? The law is virtually never enforced, a fact that comes up again and again in resident complaints. We should take lessons from Maplewood and other municipalities that have found cost-effective ways to enforce their bans.
We all want to live in a healthy, peaceful, environmentally friendly community. Transitioning away from GLBs toward cleaner, safer equipment and greener approaches to landscape maintenance will contribute to that goal. Change takes time. Now is the moment to get started.
Peter Holm is the spokesperson for Quiet Montclair. Additional research and resources can be found on the organization’s website, quietmontclair.org.
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