Source: Quiet Clean DC
Isn’t this just a “first-world problem,” for privileged people with too much time on their hands?
On the contrary: indifference to the public-health and environmental-justice aspects of this issue reflects more of a “first-world” attitude.
For the householders who hire lawn crews, the emissions and noise of two-stroke engines are a momentary inconvenience — or one they don’t notice at all, if they hire crews to do the work while they are off at work or otherwise away from their homes.
The people most at risk of health damage from gas-engine emissions, the spray of fine particulates, and ear-damaging noise are the lawn workers who may be handling this equipment many hours a day, many days a week. In major cities the members of hired lawn crews are typically low-wage, non-English speaking, and unlikely to be covered by health insurance; often they use the equipment without ear or nose protection. Indifference to this dangerous equipment implicitly means discounting their long-term health concerns.
Is there any realistic alternative?
Definitely yes, and increasingly so. The revolution in battery technology is one of the fastest-developing fields of high-tech improvement. The demand for battery-powered transportation systems, from cars to aircraft, and the ceaseless expansion of battery-powered mobile equipment is rapidly driving down the cost and weight, and driving up the power and durability, of portable batteries. Lawn-equipment manufacturers are responding with a rapid sequence of new clean, dramatically quieter leaf blowers and other equipment. And many cities across the country, including at least 25 in California alone, have already mandated this shift.
Is noise any more than a nuisance?
Yes. Increasing public-health evidence shows that rising exposure to urban and suburban noise has measurable effects on physical and mental health, especially in children and older populations. View this study for more information: Environmental Noise Pollution in the United States: Developing an Effective Public Health Response.
Apart from the effects on workers, are any other groups of people especially vulnerable to the effects of this outdated equipment?
Yes. As with many other environmental stressors, very young and very old people are the most susceptible. Precisely because their bodies are developing so quickly, children can be disproportionately affected by fumes, aerosol contaminants, dust, and even noise.
A joint letter from doctors in the Pediatric Environmental Health Unit at Mt. Sinai hospital, urging a ban on gas-powered leaf blowers, listed a range of their harmful effects on children. It included this passage about noise:
“The intense, high frequency noise that leaf blowers generate can cause loss of hearing in the workers who operate these machines and can also affect hearing in children and other persons. The ears of infants and young children are especially vulnerable to the high intensity noise that leaf blowers produce because their auditory systems are undergoing rapid growth and development, and these developmental processes are easily disrupted.”
How can lawn equipment be important enough to care about?
Compared with trucks, automobiles, and power plants, two-stroke engines are a relatively small portion of total fossil-fuel use and polluting emissions. But they are an anomaly on the modern environmental scene: At a time when car, truck, and aircraft engines are becoming dramatically cleaner and more efficient, and when power plants are moving to more sustainable energy sources, two-stroke engines are grossly dirty, dangerous, wasteful, and polluting. The easiest benchmark comparison: using a standard two-stroke engine for 30 minutes puts out as much dangerous aerial pollutants as driving a modern Ford F-150 pickup truck for some 3800 miles.
Because of their dirty inefficiency, two-stroke engines have been phased out of nearly all uses other than lawn equipment. The National Park Service has outlawed them for most boat engines on public waters. Scooter and motorcycle makers have moved beyond them. As part of their environmental clean-up plans, many Asian and Latin American cities with serious air pollution problems have outlawed two-stroke engines. These bans have taken effect in cities in India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and many Latin American countries. Systems too dirty for the people of Bangkok or Manila have outlived their usefulness in Washington D.C.
Have other cities tried this approach?
Yes, and this list is growing. The largest and best-known example in the United States is the city of Los Angeles, with a population of more than two million. An increasing number of other cities are following suit.
What can I do next?
For information on the public-health, environmental, technological, and economic arguments in favor of helping your city shift to cleaner, quieter equipment, please contact us here.