photo by Sergey + Mariner.

By Vivian Thomson and Keith 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 the advocacy chair for Friends of Sligo Creek and a Chesapeake Bay landscape professional.

By deciding to set aside a proposal to ban the sale and use of gasoline-powered leaf blowers, the Montgomery County Council is endangering the health of its citizens and especially its lawn care workers, many of whom are people of color.

The council’s transport and environment committee voted in favor of the proposal, but the full council tabled it, meaning the proposal is on hold. Those voting to table the proposal said the rebate program lacked sufficient detail to help businesses purchase battery-powered equipment. They also questioned the timing of the ban on sale and use.

This indefinite delay means that landscapers operating gasoline-powered leaf blowers will continue to experience avoidable health risks, including hearing loss. In 2022, 44 percent of landscaping workers nationally were Hispanic or Latino.

Measured noise levels from gasoline-powered leaf blowers reach 75 decibels at 50 feet and 95 to 105 decibels at the user’s ear. Just yesterday a lawn care worker was using a gasoline-powered leaf blower on the street. From a distance of about 50 feet, NIOSH’s sound level meter app showed 78 decibels, exceeding the current county standard of 65 decibels.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, you can sustain ear damage from two hours of exposure to leaf blower blasting at 90 decibels. Leaf blower users experience the worst noise and many do not wear protective equipment. The National 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 the noise produced by a gasoline-powered leaf blower penetrates the window and carries much farther than the sound produced by a battery-powered blower. A credible estimate indicates that, in a neighborhood with 1/8-acre zoning, a typical gasoline-powered leaf blower could disturb 90 homes while the quietest battery-powered blower would disturb only one.

Hearing loss can be insidious, happening before we 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 that list and estimates that at least 1 million healthy life-years are lost each year in Europe due to exposure to traffic noise.

Air pollution that leaf blowers pump out includes fine particulate matter, oxides of nitrogen, and the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. People of color are already disproportionately exposed to a long list of fine particulate matter pollution risks, simply because of where they live. They do not have to experience additional, avoidable health burdens on the job.

Out of concern for all this air pollution, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) has banned the sale of most new small, gasoline-powered, “off-road” engines (including leaf blowers) starting in 2024. CARB estimates that small off-road engines emit more oxides of nitrogen and reactive organic gases than light-duty passenger vehicles in the state. CARB says that operating a backpack leaf blower for an hour produces ozone-forming pollution comparable to driving from Los Angeles to Denver.

Maryland may adopt California’s zero-emissions requirements for new, smaller off-road engines. Other states are already following California’s lead. A bill to ban the sale of new gasoline-powered lawn care devices is under consideration in the New York State Senate. Adopting California’s rules could help Maryland meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals and accelerate compliance with the Clean Air Act’s ozone standards. Reducing nitrogen oxide air pollution is critical to the health of the Bay’s watershed. Approximately 1/3 of the watershed’s nitrogen load comes from the air.

In proposing a ban on the sale and use of gasoline-powered leaf blowers, the Montgomery County Council is not pushing the policy envelope. Many cities and counties, including the District of Columbia, have led the way, providing countless examples to learn from. For example, California has adopted a voucher program that reduces the cost of battery-powered equipment at the time of sale. Some areas in California supplement this voucher program.

Council must put its leaf blower ban back on its active agenda and address the issues that have caused this stalemate. The health and safety of Montgomery County citizens, especially its landscape workers, hangs in the balance.

By admin

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