Credit: Needham Observer

Leaf season in Needham means lovely colors, crisp air — and the endless roar of leaf blowers. Across the U.S., gas-powered leaf blowers have become a local concern for their noise and air-polluting emissions, but an affluent community of single-family homes like Needham is a magnet for landscape companies. With the number of landscapers at work in town each day, it’s no wonder a springtime Facebook post on the subject drew more than 80 comments.

“This issue bubbles up every autumn,” said Select Board member Kevin Keane. “I can see why people are frustrated by it. I think it’s time for the Select Board to take a look at it.”

Keane pointed to Newton, which created a noise ordinance in 2018. “The machines there have to operate at noise levels lower than 65 decibels,” he said. “Some of these things run at 100.” And the landscapers often work in teams, operating four or more machines at once. “I guess if you want peace and quiet,” Keane joked, “move to the city.”

“I think the COVID quarantine brought home how many machines there are and how much of the day they’re operating,” said Stephen Frail, a member of Needham’s Climate Action Plan Committee (CAPC). Once he began working from home he added a decibel meter app to his phone. “I’ve measured over 90 decibels from nearby leaf blowers.” 

Frail says there has been quite a bit of talk about regulating gas-powered lawn equipment, and he would not be surprised if residents organized and brought the issue to the town. However, he expects the CAPC to focus on bigger-impact issues and hopes that, for leaf blowers, a combination of cost and consumer demand will lead to change. “If the cost of owning and operating electric equipment becomes cheaper than the cost of gas-powered equipment, then the shift will happen rapidly,” he said. “I’d love it if the market would solve this because it’s one more place we’d have to use political capital for the environment, and there are bigger challenges.”

Donna Vello, who’s active in the Green Needham Collaborative, has already devised a market approach. She and a neighbor agreed that neither of them would allow landscapers to use gas-powered equipment on their properties. The landscapers they hire have to use electric equipment that Vello and her neighbor provide. “They still work for us,” she said. “And while it’s hard on them in some ways, they’re not blowing out their eardrums or breathing the fumes.”

As serious as the noise may be — even 85 decibels at 50 feet can lead to hearing loss — the air pollution released by small-engine lawn equipment is the larger concern for environmental experts. The two-stroke engines in many leaf blowers use a mixture of gasoline and oil and release exhaust through ports rather than valves. The EPA lists and measures the many environmental impacts of a design that leads to incomplete burning of the fuel with no emission controls: The air is inundated with particulates, carbon dioxide, benzine, and formaldehyde, among other noxious emissions. In one hour, a two stroke leaf blower engine emits more smog-forming pollution than a current gas-powered car releases in a typical month (1,100 miles). The effects are summarized in a new report from Environment America. 

The health impacts are leading to change in some places. Grist, an online environmental publication, reports that outright bans on gas-powered leaf blowers have been enacted in Washington, D.C., Miami Beach, Florida., and Evanston, Illinois.

Still, regulation would be a challenge, Keane said. Landscapers are mostly small businesses, and enforcement can be hard. He said Newton’s experience has been mixed. Neighbors have to complain about neighbors; police have more important things to do — and who is going to show up with a decibel meter to document the infraction?

Current Needham regulation has nothing to offer. The only noise regulation on the books requires only that construction activity “which causes noise that extends beyond the property line, shall be limited to the hours of 7AM to 8PM unless authorized by rules or regulations adopted by the Select Board.”

Even without regulation, some landscapers are choosing to use electric-powered equipment. It’s less powerful, but much quieter, and related emissions are the much cleaner ones from highly regulated power plants. The landscape company TJ Collins, for example, has trademarked the term “quiet crew” for its all-electric service. The Green Needham and Green Newton websites list landscapers who offer lower-impact services and those committed to meeting the Newton standards.

“Environmentally, leaf blowers are awful,” Keane said. “The noise, the pollution. It’s not good for the community, it’s not good for the workers. And the whole idea of blowing off a lawn removes a lot of valuable soil ingredients. The health of people, the quiet enjoyment of your neighborhood? I’m not swayed that it’s worth it for a clean lawn.”

Keane said the issue is not on the town’s current agenda, but he’d like to add it in the spring. “I want a solution that works for everyone.”

For now? “I just mow my lawn and mulch the leaves,” Keane said. “If I do it often enough, I never have to rake.”

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