It’s hard to escape the whine of a gas-powered leaf blower during autumn in New England. In the seasonal battle against falling leaves, they’re a favored weapon for landscapers and homeowners alike. But in a lot of neighborhoods their shrill droning has become inescapable year-round, especially for those working from home.
“A lot of us were around for the summer, windows are open and you’re trying to work and got that ‘whaaaaa, whaaaaa,’” said George Allen of Swampscott.
The rise of remote work has been fueling efforts to ban or just limit the use of gas-powered leaf blowers in communities across Greater Boston. And while noise is the key motivator for leaf blower complaints, concerns about health, climate change and equity for workers have surfaced, too.
Lexington, Belmont, Arlington and Concord have voted to phase in year-round bans on gas-powered blowers. And other municipalities, like Swampscott, will prohibit blowers from Memorial to Labor Day.
Allen, a scientist with expertise in air quality, tried to bring a leaf blower ban to Swampscott a decade ago. Since then, he says, gas blowers have only become more popular.
“Right now we have a house there, a house there, a house there, that use leaf blowers,” Allen said. “They’re dirty instruments [with] very high emission rates.”
The EPA standards for leaf blowers and other small landscape equipment haven’t been updated since 2010 and there is no statewide law in Massachusetts, so it’s up to cities and towns to regulate them.
Gas-powered leaf blowers have small, lightweight two-stroke engines that produce significant emissions and pollution from burning fuel with oil. “A commercial landscaper using one backpack leaf blower for one hour generates the same smog-forming emissions as a car driving 1,100 miles,” according to California’s Air Resources Board.
A recent report by MassPIRG, a public advocacy group focused on health and safety issues, found in 2020 that “lawn and garden equipment spewed an estimated 614,932 tons of carbon dioxide in Massachusetts – an amount equivalent to the pollution from 135,371 typical cars” and emits 500 tons of the fine particles known as PM 2.5, equivalent to the emissions of more than 5.3 million cars.
According to the EPA, emissions from leaf blowers contribute to ozone air pollution and emit fine particles leading to respiratory diseases, cardiovascular issues and premature death. Their fumes and exhaust give off known carcinogens such as benzene and butadiene. The people most at risk have the motors with plastic fuel tanks strapped to their back: landscape workers, who are often migrant laborers.
“You’re asking us to invest in a technology that is inferior and expensive.”Todd Norman, owner of Todd Norman Landscaping
“I’ve heard this called a first-world problem, but it’s much more than that. There’s the worker population. Many of these workers don’t have a voice,” said Jamie Banks, a health care and environmental scientist based in Lincoln. ”These are machines that are used around schools of all kinds, around health facilities. This is noise and pollution that affects many more people than customers and simply the wealthy suburbs.”
Banks’ research has looked at noise as a public health hazard and said high-decibel leaf blower noise doesn’t just damage hearing, but also adds stress that can have a broader health impact.
“When people hear noise like that, there’s a stress response — and that’s a first line response that sets off in the body a physiological cascade that ends up resulting in damage to the blood vessels, which can cause or contribute to a lot of different diseases, be it heart disease, stroke, metabolic disturbances, and on and on,” said Banks.
A decade ago, Banks founded Quiet Communities, a Massachusetts nonprofit focused on reducing health and environment risks from noise and pollution. Her organization has helped institutions like the New England Botanical Garden at Tower Hill to transition all their landscaping equipment to electric power.
But landscapers, who have large investments in inventories of gas-powered equipment, are pushing back. Electric blowers are more expensive and, for landscapers, require banks of additional batteries and charging equipment.
“Anyone who’s worked with a [gas-powered] leaf blower will tell you what a valuable tool it can be,” said Todd Norman, owner of Todd Norman Landscaping, during a debate about leaf blowers last May at Marblehead’s annual town meeting. “You’re asking us to invest in a technology that is inferior and expensive.”
Norman added that gas-powered blowers save landscapers’ time and customers’ money. And, he says, they do a better job clearing the landscape of leaves and other debris.
“I’ve heard some people say it does not need to be perfect, but I think you would disagree if you were the one paying for this service,” he said.
George Carrette, whose Concord-based landscaping company Eco Quiet Lawn Care uses only electric equipment, said he’s watched his share of heated town meetings on the issue.
“I started my business around 10 years ago,” Carrette said, “I did want to make a difference and, the more I learned about it, the more it seemed like a really important thing, where you have a small amount of gas consumption creating a huge amount of pollution.”
His company does product testing for electric equipment manufacturers and said new commercial electric blowers are now comparable in strength to most gas powered models. And that electric blowers, which operate at higher frequencies, are significantly quieter.
Carrette acknowledges his service is more expensive than gas powered because the cost of electric equipment is much higher, but he thinks landscapers will ultimately save on maintenance and ease of use. Still, he said, the upfront costs for landscapers “can be a tough pill for people to swallow.”
Banks said bans need to go hand in hand with help for landscapers.
“I have my electric car, my solar panels. I’m a climate evangelist but I also understand that change takes time and these are small businesses,” Banks said, “What is being done to support the landscaper community while they go through this transition?”
”This is noise and pollution that affects many more people than customers and simply the wealthy suburbs.”Jamie Banks, a health care and environmental scientist based in Lincoln
State Rep. Michelle Ciccolo, whose hometown of Lexington became the first in the state to enact a ban on gas-powered leaf blowers, is sponsoring a bill that would provide grants to cities and towns to transition their commercial landscape equipment to all electric, as well as zero-interest loans for landscapers who want to try electric equipment.
“I was very concerned about the impact on small businesses,” Ciccolo said, “So I wanted to provide a pathway to access the funding for the equipment itself.”
This is the third year in a row she’s presented her bill, but she’s optimistic about momentum for the issue now that there’s a similar bill in the Senate sponsored by state Sen. Cynthia Creem who represents Brookline, Wellesley and Newton.
Maggie Peard, sustainability and resilience officer for the town of Lexington, said educational support will help speed the shift to electric.
“A lot of landscape companies don't have that knowledge of what equipment to use and how to make that transition,” Peard said.
Still, she and others point out the leaf blower ban is a small but doable step and one that ties in with the state’s 2050 net-zero plan and a target of a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
“Certainly things like electrifying heating and cooling equipment is a higher-impact effort than converting lawn care equipment,” Peard said. “But all of this needs to happen for us to get the climate crisis under control.”
Produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.