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A man using a battery-powered leaf blower.

A battery-powered leaf blower clearing a lawn in Washington, D.C. Photo by James Fallows.

When doing the cross-country travels that led to the Our Towns book and movie, Deb Fallows and I would return after each long journey to our home in Washington, D.C.

As I recounted several years ago in The Atlantic, after hearing again and again about “civic patriots” around the country who had looked at a local problem and decided to fix it, Deb and I began wondering what we could do in our own home town. (Which also happens to be the nation’s capital but has powerful neighborhood-by-neighborhood culture.) One result was membership in a local group whose efforts ultimately led to a surprisingly important environmental change.

I’ve told the whole story in several installments: in that 2019 Atlantic dispatch; in a Substack post last year; and in two roundups this year, here and here. The short version is that an increasingly taken-for-granted piece of modern lawn care, the gas-powered leaf blower, had emerged as a major environmental menace, and as the most polluting piece of equipment still in legal use. This meant that by hastening a seemingly minor household-by-household, community-by-community shift away from this hyper-damaging equipment, citizens could make a much bigger difference than they might imagine.

The details of this accelerating national movement are below, from the Substack post. At the end, I’ve added a fascinating response from Rob Mintz in Anchorage, Alaska. He likens this change in societal norms to one several decades ago—namely, the expectation that dog owners would clean up after their pets, rather than assuming that their feces should be left on public sidewalks or neighbors’ yards. It’s an interesting and apt comparison, as he spells out.

Now, the Substack post from this week:

Gas Powered Leaf Blowers Are Going Away. Really.

This post is a roundup of news about the ongoing shift away from the dirtiest machinery still in legal use, gas-powered leaf blowers. The change is happening, and it is speeding up.

Over the past seven years, the District of Columbia has set a standard for the nation by considering, approving, and now successfully implementing a complete ban on the sale or use of this destructive machinery. My wife, Deb, and I have been part of a D.C. citizens group working on this change. One of our watchwords has been “accelerating the inevitable,” as with previous limits on smoking or dangerous pesticides like DDT.

Sooner or later, we’ll make these changes. So let’s do it sooner.

This week, in a very good story in the Washington Post, Rachel Kurzius, who has covered the D.C. evolution of this issue, writes about it on the national scale. She says: “First, let’s deal with gas-powered leaf blowers, which are viewed about as favorably these days as smoking indoors.”

It’s an apt comparison, with the added twist that these yard machines amount to “second-hand smoke” in two distinct ways.

—One is the literal smoke and fumes from two-stroke engines. They incompletely burn a slurry of gasoline and oil, and release much of the remainder as carcinogenic aerosols and smog-forming pollutants. More details from the California Air Resources Board in a PDF here.

—The other is their uniquely penetrating noise, which affects bystanders over very large areas, and of course is most damaging to the people closest to the noise source. In big cities and suburbs these are typically low-wage hired crews, unlikely to have long-term insurance coverage for the damage done to their lungs and ears. An audiologist wrote eloquently about the despair he feels every time he sees a crew using these machines, as quoted here. For more about why gas-powered blower noise carries so far, start with this testimony from public-health expert Jamie Banks.

“Here’s the thing about tipping points,” Peter Leyden wrote in an article I cited recently. He continued:

When they happen, they happen fast… Some new trend will slowly grow in popularity on the fringes of society and once it gets enough exposure then — boom — everyone does it.

Some examples of everyone doing it:

Sierra magazine.

From the writer Michael Shapiro, a very good article in Sierra magazine on the significance of the D.C. legislation. Sample:

Retired psychotherapist and poet Larry Robinson says that the damage inflicted by leaf blowers goes beyond physical, that “the soul experiences mechanical sounds as an assault.” The sound from gas blowers “overwhelms all other sounds,” he says, “including music, conversation, the wind through the trees, or the songs of birds.”

More than 100 US cities and towns have banned or restricted leaf blowers…

The transition is accelerating as manufacturers shift production toward electric machines. Makita, a Japanese power tool manufacturer, announced last March that it ceased production “of all gas-powered equipment worldwide . . . in response to the heightened awareness of global environmental issues.”

More on the WaPo piece.

Let’s go back to the new piece by Rachel Kurzius. She writes:

According to tool-manufacturer Stanley, Black & Decker, 85 percent of personal-use blowers on the market now are electric. “That’s been pretty steady over the last five years,” says Christine Potter, president of the company’s outdoor business unit….

There are more than 200 jurisdictions across the country that have some law governing leaf blower use, says Jamie Banks, president of Quiet Communities, a nonprofit group focused on reducing noise and pollution…

In D.C., where gas blowers were banned in 2018 with a three-year phase-in period, people who still use them can face a $500 fine.

As I’ve noted before, the law’s implementation in D.C. deserves study as a model for other jurisdictions:

—It got unanimous legislative support, thanks to leadership by Councilmember Mary Cheh. It offered multi-year advance notification to lawn-care companies, in mailings, newsletters, and updates from regulatory agencies. It provided low-cost loans and trade-in subsidies for D.C.-based lawn companies, notably from DCSEU, the District’s Sustainable Energy Utility. And once it took effect, at the start of 2022, it relied on a simple and effective violation-reporting system.1

If you read Kurzius’s piece, please be sure to check out the comments. As of the moment, they are at least ten-to-one enthusiastic about a shift away from gas-powered blowers. Even five years ago, they would mainly have been been negative, from people scoffing, “Don’t you have anything better to worry about?”

Things change slowly, and then fast.

From the East Coast to the West, …

—This week, there was a strong article in NJ.Com from Bill Brazell. The original article is here; a non-paywalled blog version is here. Sample:

It’s the gas-powered leaf blower’s incomplete combustion that creates this immense pollution. The engine’s lubricating oils contaminate the fuel-air mixture as it burns, and only some of the fuel ends up being used to move leaves.

The rest comes out as carbon monoxide, unburnt carbon particles and benzene. Benzene can cause two forms of leukemia, as well as multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. How much benzene do you want your lawn-care workers, your children and yourself to inhale?

—On the other coast, an upcoming ban in Seattle.

—Back on the East Coast again, a 2017 article about possible action in Miami. And a 2019 article in Quartz about action across the country.

—And for application in any part of the country, see a site called “Leave the Leaves Alone!” It presents arguments about the benefits of turning fallen leaves into natural mulch. Rachel Kurzius also covers this aspect:

“Leaf litter is an astonishingly rich habitat” for animals, especially insects, which lay their eggs there in winter, says Matthew Shepherd, director of outreach and education at Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. It also improves soil health, which in turn helps sustain plants that attract pollinators…

“We’re facing all sorts of issues in our lives: climate change and loss of species and pollution,” Shepherd says. “Often, people are looking for simple things they can do, and what you do in your garden is a really straightforward, simple, direct action that people can take.”

Let’s hear from the scientists.

The more you look into the public health data, the more you realize that people will eventually wonder why these machines were ever accepted for routine use. I remember a black-and-white photo from the 1950s, of my great-uncle at the wheel of a car. He has a cigar between his teeth and an open beer in one hand. I am in the photo as a pre-schooler, sitting shotgun in the front seat, with no seat belt. Seat belts did not exist, let alone car seats.

Not long from now, pictures of lawn crews with gas blowers will be like that snapshot. Some illustrations:

—From the National Library of Medicine, a 2016 report looking specifically at hearing loss among university lawn crews. Here is a sample chart of noise exposure from different kinds of equipment:

SPL in this table stands for “sound pressure level,” as measured in decibels (dBA). The decibel scale is logarithmic, so each 10-point increase means (roughly) a doubling in sound pressure. The only thing noisier than the gas-powered leaf blowers was a chainsaw.

—From the CDC, a two-part 2018 report on practical steps to reduce hearing damage to lawn crews. The first installment is here, and the second is here. Sample:

Many people have come home from a concert or other loud event with muffled hearing and their ears ringing, only to wake up the next morning feeling back to normal. These symptoms, while temporary, are an indication that damage is occurring inside the ear.

Repeated loud noise exposure over weeks, months or years can eventually lead to permanent damage…

Repeated noise exposure can also lead to permanent hearing loss. Hearing loss has lifelong effects which can include difficulty communicating, increased risk of injury on the job, and mental health issues like anxiety and depression

Again, it’s a real problem, and has been known as such for years. Now real progress is underway.

If it hasn’t happened in your town yet, let your neighbors know what others like them have done. This will happen sooner or later. Make it sooner.

We’ve Been Through Changes Like This Before, from Robert Mintz.

Robert Mintz, a lawyer in Anchorage, Alaska, wrote in response to the article above. His reaction is illuminating, and is quoted with his permission:

“Congratulations are in order [to the DC team]…. It must be gratifying to finally achieve success — although I suspect if one looks back with a clear eye it is also stupefying to appreciate how much time and effort are required to bring change about even when the value of the change is so clear.

“I have always been fascinated by the question of what it takes for society to recognize that something is a problem that deserves to be fixed. In fact, my senior thesis at Harvard dealt with this question (“Social Responses to New Technical Problems: Smog, Pesticides, and Shoe-fitting Fluoroscopes”). Do you remember X-ray machines in shoe stores when you were a kid?

“One fairly recent example is the social norm that dog owners should pick up after their pets. This is the norm now even here in the Wild West of Anchorage, but a few decades ago, virtually no one cleaned up dog poo. I remember a TV interview in the 1970s with a lonely advocate for dog poo hygiene, a grandmother whose grandchild had lost vision in one eye as the result of a parasite picked up from dog poo. She said that from her observations of most people’s attitudes and behavior, dog feces must be the most valuable product in America. She even received hate mail; one person claimed her grandchild’s blindness must have been caused by syphilis.

“I have toyed with the idea of researching and writing about exactly how and why the social norm in this area changed so dramatically. But I have no idea how to research this, or even if there is any practicable way to find the answer.

“Anyway, I’ll look forward to the day when gas-powered leaf blowers disappear from Anchorage.”

1 As a tip for other jurisdictions considering similar measures: D.C.’s law does not rely on decibel readings or restricted hours of use, which create an enforcement nightmare. Instead it’s a bright-line rule: If you use (or sell) a gas-powered blower within the District, you’re breaking the law. In these first nine months of the law’s effect, first (or sometimes second) offenses have led to warnings. People who persist face $500 per-violation fines. People can file reports or complaints with this form.