Banning Gas Leaf Blowers in Urban Parts of Montgomery County, MD
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Banning Gas Leaf Blowers in Urban Areas of Montgomery County to Improve Air Quality
Gas leaf blowers and air pollution – Typical gas leaf blowers are powered by 2-stroke engines that were originally designed in the late 1800’s. While cheap and economical, they are also among the least efficient engines in use today. Inherent in their design is the incomplete combustion of a gas and oil mixture without any exhaust regulation. This is critical to understand because it leads to the grossly disproportional amount of pollution that these devices emit compared to other sources of combustion, such as automobiles. We are not dismissing fossil fuel automobiles as a significant source of air pollution in Montgomery County, but we feel people are genuinely unaware how gas powered leaf blowers compare. For instance, according to the California Air Resources Board (CARB), operating a commercial leaf blower for one hour emits as much smog generating pollution as driving a 2016 Toyota Camry the equivalent of 1100 miles, or the distance from Los Angeles to Denver. Another study in collaboration between Edmunds Automotive and the American Automobile Association directly compared the emissions of a 2011 Ford Raptor and a backpack mounted leaf blower. The leaf blower produced nearly 300 times the carbon monoxide of the pickup (1). Ironically, to “go green” in Bethesda, one would simply have to forego the leaf blowers and strap a pickup truck onto their back to clear leaves with the exhaust.
(Source: https://ww2.arb.ca.gov/resources/fact-sheets/small-engines-california CARB includes 16 boards members with 12 chosen by the Governor of California and 4 experts in fields pertaining to air quality.)
Pollution from inefficient gas lawn equipment is so great in fact, that it is estimated to soon surpass automobiles as the primary source of ozone-generating pollution in California (2). Air pollution generated from two-stroke engines is such a significant source of ozone that some states even declare “no mow” days when air quality reaches certain lows (3), and both California and Utah have instituted gas for electric trade-in programs to combat air pollution (4,5).
Another major concern is that these tools are no longer being utilized intermittently in our neighborhoods. Leaf blowers are now used to clear leaves in the Spring and Fall and throughout the entire Summer to move grass clippings off of walkways and the street. Some folks even swear to clearing snow with these devices. We thus hear their loud, high-pitched noise from mid- to late February each year until the following January as evidence of their persistent pollution. Additionally, pollution from leaf blowers compounds and leads directly to other forms of air pollution. When gas leaf blowers are operating in full force in Bethesda, all neighbors are essentially required to close their windows and run air conditions instead of simply allowing a fresh spring breeze to cool their homes.
What are the consequences of all this pollution? – All of the evidence clearly shows that inefficient gas lawn equipment, including leaf blowers, is a significant source of air pollution. Importantly, the health consequences of breathing polluted air affects all age, race, and socioeconomic demographics. Every individual that walks or enters our neighborhoods is harmed by breathing the exhaust of unnecessary leaf blowers. In children, particulate pollution is linked to increased mortality outcome, increased risks of birth defects, adverse respiratory health outcomes including asthma, increased school absenteeism, and altered immunity (6). In the general US population, early exposure to air pollution is linked with increased rates of psychiatric disorders including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, major depression, and personality disorder (7). Thus even a ban on highly polluting leaf blowers today would continue to have health ramifications for years to come. Despite the devastating health effects of air pollution on children, they are not alone in their suffering. Senior citizens are also at greater risk of health complications from air pollution as it impacts brain and lung function. One sad recommendation from the AARP is that seniors should not exercise in areas with higher air pollution (8). The same AARP article unfortunately points out that after decades of improvements to air quality, the last few years have only seen a decline. In accordance with the AARP recommendations, numerous other studies have also shown that exercising in the presence of air pollution can sadly do more harm to your health than benefit (9). For reference, the American Lung Association gave Montgomery County a D in air quality in 2015-2017 (10). Air pollution also exacerbates preexisting conditions, such as autoimmune disorders, respiratory disorders, and cardiac disorders. It can additionally cause neurological symptoms such as headache and fatigue. Of course, there is need to mention that the operator of the device is at even greater health risk and thus limiting their exposure would in fact be humane.
But it is not just healthcare professionals that should be concerned about the health risk of air pollution, as even the most callous economist could appreciate that every dollar spent on reducing emissions and pollution results in a nearly 10-fold increase in financial benefit.
Why aren’t we doing anything about this as a County? – An argument can be made that the appearance of our lawns or properties is simply more important than our health or healthcare costs and finances. Perhaps there is an argument that without colossal backpack gas leaf blowers, our properties would simply fall into disarray and home values would plummet. Here I would like to dispel these myths. First, modern electric tools including electric leaf blowers now rival their polluting counterparts in terms of power and effectiveness. Thus eco-friendly lawn care is not only possible, but profitable for landscaping companies that choose to go green. Here for instance is a list of electric-only landscaping companies operating in 10 different states, including Solar Mowing in Maryland’s own Montgomery County. It can be done and it needs to be done now.
Unfortunately, I believe that consumers of gas lawn care goods and services are simply unaware of their contributions to air pollution and thus genuinely eco-friendly solutions have been too slow to drive market forces. Some landscaping companies argue that going green and using electric power tools will slightly reduce their efficiency and make them less competitive. This is precisely why a ban will be so beneficial, as it will level the playing field across all companies and not allow a small number of dissentients to profit from the good will of ecofriendly companies. Over 20 cities in California have completely banned all gas-powered leaf blowers and the results have been entirely positive. The bans are reported as being 90 – 95% enforceable, of little burden to enforce, and citizen satisfaction with the bans is reported to be as high as 100% (10). Interestingly, there were no reports of landscapers going out of business or raising their rates. We urge Montgomery County to instill a similar ban within dense urban areas including the city limits of Bethesda were small lot sizes do not warrant such drastic measures as gas leaf blowers to maintain properties. Many of these bans were enacted in the 70’s through 90’s in cities including Palo Alto, Malibu, and Santa Monica. Property values in all of these areas have only skyrocketed since that time and landscaping continues to be a bustling industry in those regions. If local landscaping companies are forced to use eco-friendly tools in urban settings in Montgomery County, the property owners that employed them before such a ban would simply continue to do so afterwards.
Why act now? – It is time to ban gas leaf blowers all across America’s dense urban settings and it should be done immediately. California is leading the way in this respect and Maryland is falling behind. Even in the region, Montgomery County fails to lead as other municipalities such as Washington D.C. have beat us to enact full bans on these polluting devices. The adverse health effects of air pollution are cumulative and delays to action will negatively impact residents and their children for decades. I understand that right now the region is combating COVID-19 and that air pollution thus becomes an issue that can easily be pushed aside. But I argue that this is exactly the wrong way to approach this concern. Air pollution is major factor in determining the outcome of patients suffering from respiratory diseases such as COVID-19 (11). True leadership is using this opportunity to educate the public on how decades of abuse to air quality negatively impacts our ability to fight future diseases. Following the swine flu, MERS, SARS and COVID-19 epidemics, it is hard to imagine that we will not face similar challenges in the future. Let’s use this opportunity to enact positive change for once, rather than to cower from progress.
What do we want? – We want an absolute ban on gas leaf blowers within the densely populated urban portions of Montgomery County. Specifically, we propose a ban on using these devices on properties that are less than ¾ of an acre. This will tremendously reduce air pollution in our dense urban areas while allowing landscaping crews to use these machines in larger, more rural portions of the County.
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