How keeping your lawn perfectly manicured is contributing to a public health crisis
This month, as lawns start to come back to life after a long winter, we’re being inundated with “advice” from so-called landscaping experts.
Americans have an obsession with perfectly manicured lawns and landscapes. And that obsession is wreaking havoc on our health.
I’ve written before about the dangers of chemical lawn fertilizers and weed-killers. But those toxic chemicals aren’t the only hazards you’ll find in your own backyard…
All across the country and around the world, gas-powered leaf blowers (GLBs) have become so common that it’s not unusual to hear them year-round. Owners blast away at leaves in the fall, and dirt, debris, and grass clippings in the spring and summer. All at an earsplitting, hurricane-force wind speed of 200 mph.
You may find these blowers terribly annoying, as I do. Or maybe you partake in the treacherous yardwork. Either way, you should know that our growing obsession with GLBs is actually polluting our world—and harming our health and hearing in the process.
Blown away by a public health crisis
You know I’m a big proponent of green spaces. Spending time outdoors in Nature is one of my top recommended ways to preserve your health—mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically.
But I’m talking about natural green spaces. Not the artificially emerald-colored lawns and golf courses that seem to be popping up everywhere. Often, these “landscapes” are maintained by dangerous chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Not to mention noisy, polluting gas-powered mowers and blowers.
You’d think that with all of the environmental regulations for the auto industry, the energy industry, and public utilities, there would be similar regulations for the multibillion-dollar lawn and gardening industry. And yet, the problem with GLBs somehow passes under the radar.
Not only are leaf blowers a public nuisance, but they’re rapidly becoming a public health crisis. In fact, back in 2015, one survey estimated there were a whopping 11 million GLBs in the U.S.—and that number has only gone up since.1
Fortunately, I’ve been able to collaborate with Ms. Jill Bellenger, a brilliant environmental advocate who is a dear, long-time family friend, to bring attention to this growing problem.
In fact, she even created her own website to inform and inspire us about this problem: LeafBlowerNoisePollution.com. And I’d like to share some of the information Jill and I have collected with you here.
Now hear this
Gas-powered lawn and garden equipment—like mowers and leaf blowers—operate at noise levels as high as 112 decibels.2 That’s louder than a live rock concert or a jet taking off! And it far exceeds the safe levels established by the World Health Organization (WHO), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) for the prevention of hearing loss and other adverse health effects.
In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that being exposed to 100 decibels for just 15 minutes a day can result in permanent hearing loss.3 And if all of your neighbors are firing up their GLBs every weekend, you could suffer from hours of high-decibel exposure.
So it’s no wonder that, according to the CDC, “Hearing loss is the third most common chronic health condition in the U.S. Almost twice as many people report hearing loss as they do diabetes or cancer.”4
Research also shows that noise from GLBs has a low-frequency component that travels farther and penetrates structures, thereby increasing the risk of adverse health effects. Plus, the EPA states that even after a loud noise has stopped, people still have a degraded quality of life. After all, noise impairs communication and social interaction, and makes us less accurate in completing complex tasks.5
The EPA also notes that noise creates stress—particularly frustration and aggravation. And we all know that stress is one of the main factors behind many chronic illnesses.
Children, older people, the sick, and people who work overnight shifts are particularly vulnerable to these effects.
Of course, noise is all around us in our increasingly chaotic world. But the difference with loud lawn care equipment is that we have no choice but to be exposed.
Carcinogens swirling all around us
Hearing loss is bad enough, but it’s only one way leaf blowers damage our health. In fact, the American Lung Association encourages people to avoid leaf blowers due to the toxic dust they create, which includes known carcinogens.5
The exhaust from GLBs can include benzene, formaldehyde, and hydrocarbons—not to mention the blowers’ capability to aerosolize anything lying on the ground, such as pesticides, herbicides, animal feces, and heavy metals. All of which inevitably become part of the air we breathe. All in the name of unnaturally and uselessly “cleaning up” our lawns, parks, and landscapes.
And this is certainly not a new problem. Ten years ago, Mount Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center went so far as to write a letter to the Eastchester Town Board in New York, voicing their support for limiting the use of GLBs during summer months in the interest of improving the health of Eastchester residents—particularly their children.6
The letter explained how GLBs and other internal-combustion power tools pose a serious health threat to children “because they breathe more air per pound of body weight per day than adults and thus inhale more of any pollutants that are thrown into the air by this equipment.”
That alone should be enough to make any homeowner or landscape contractor think long and hard about using this equipment near others…especially children!
It’s also hard not to draw a correlation between rising asthma rates and the increasing use of GLBs. The CDC and Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America note that more than 25 million Americans have asthma, and this number has been steadily increasing since the early 1980s.7
The huge environmental impact of manicured lawns
Of course, this amount of pollution is just as damaging for the planet’s health as it is for human health.
According to the California Air Resources Board, using a GLB for just one hour emits as much smog-forming pollution as driving a 2017 Toyota Camry about 1,100 miles.8
They estimate that, over the next few years, as passenger car emissions continue to decrease, total smog-forming emissions from small engines (like GLBs) will actually exceed those from passenger cars.9
Why the feds aren’t coming to our rescue
The fact is, smaller engines, like those found in GLBs, lack the expensive exhaust-treatment systems like catalytic converters or particulate filters that vehicles have. Meaning all of the nasty contaminants flow right through GLBs, unfiltered, and out into the air.
So where is the EPA—not to mention other federal agencies—in all of this madness?
To answer that question, we need to go back to a quieter time, at least with regards to lawn and garden care. Because in 1972, the Nixon administration passed the Noise Control Act, which set emission standards for virtually every source of noise, including lawn-care equipment.10
But the act was short-lived. In 1981, it was dismantled, ending further development of noise regulations on a national level. After that, it was up to local governments to fend for themselves—and some of the biggest offenders, like small engines in GLBs, were essentially off the hook (in the garage, and with the feds).
With every state and municipality in the U.S. forced to do their own research and decide on their own regulations one at a time, the lawn care industry was able to ramp up its production of more and more gas guzzlers. And it wasn’t until 1997 that the EPA even started regulating leaf blowers!
Today, the EPA handles all emissions standards for vehicles and engines in America. But given the vast scope of machinery the agency is regulating, GLBs are low on the priority list. And the bottom line is that motor vehicles are held to a much higher standard than small engines.
5 steps you can take to protect yourself—starting today
The research here is well documented. And the impacts have also been documented by the medical and scientific communities. Yet, government regulation is sorely lacking.
So we, as informed citizens, need to take matters into our own hands. Start questioning why these devices are still permitted to be sold around the country and the world. Is there any real benefit?
But beyond that, there are a few things you can do, both in your own home and in your community, to impart change. Here are my top five recommendations:
1.) Talk to your HOA. If you belong to a homeowners association (HOA), see if there’s anything that can be done about switching your lawn and garden practices to more sustainable methods. For instance, encourage a “leave the leaves” policy!
2.) De-lawn. Reduce the size of your own lawn by planting native species that will not only save you time and water for lawn maintenance, but will also encourage much-needed visits from pollinators.
3.) Lobby the locals. Talk to your elected officials about your town or county’s noise ordinance. While many municipalities have no noise ordinances or use vague language, others are getting more serious about cracking down on noise violators that routinely expose the community to a certain decibel level they’ve deemed unacceptable—typically around 65 decibels.
4.) Change your own practices. Remember, change starts at home. If you own a GLB, consider at least swapping it out for a battery-powered or electric model.
5.) Pick up a rake. This “old-fashioned” form of caring for your lawn is actually my preferred method. It may take a little extra time, but it sure weighs less than a 25-pound backpack full of gasoline. Plus, it can actually be an enjoyable (and quiet!) experience. And gardening by hand is one of the healthiest and most enjoyable activities for the mind and body.
Bottom line, there’s so much we can do for the sake of our health, the health of our communities, and our environment by getting rid of GLBs. So I hope you’ll join me in a noise-free and pollution-free gardening season this year—and every year.