When it comes to health, Marblehead residents like to say they stay ahead of the curve. Long before it became state law, the town was one of the first municipalities in the state to ban smoking in all public places. Several years ago, it became the first town on the North Shore to ban pesticide use on public property.
Now some residents say the time has come to place a partial ban on gas-powered leaf blowers, the ubiquitous motorized, funneled tool that landscapers use to propel leaves, grass, twigs and anything else from the ground at a rate of over 200 miles per hour. Some, like Pat Beckett – who is one of the leading proponents of the proposed ban – say the machines produce noise and dust clouds from other ground items besides the leaves, such as pesticides, fungus, and animal feces. Voters will decide on Monday at the Marblehead Town Meeting whether to limit use.
“We think this is a reasonable start, and then everybody can get used to the return to peace and quiet and cleaner air to breathe,” said Beckett, who is proposing that the use of leaf blowers be prohibited in Marblehead between May 15 and Sept. 15.
The town is the latest to consider restricting use of the leaf blowers, which have been on the market since the 1970s. Nationwide, more than 300 cities have enacted bans or are considering them, with California the epicenter of the anti-blower movement. Locally, Cambridge has had a seasonal ban on the machines for four years; Brookline approved a seasonal ban last year, but it has now been appealed to the state. While Wellesley Town Meeting rejected a ban in April, Newton and Framingham are considering bans, and Swampscott will hold a forum on the machines this spring and plans to put a proposed ban to voters at its Town Meeting next year.
Talk of a ban has stirred the wrath of local landscapers, who say restricting use will slow the cleanup process and cost consumers more money.
“Any kind of ban in the spring or fall would be really devastating to people in this industry or to people who have their property maintained,” said Brent Munroe, who has owned Munroe Landscaping in Marblehead for 14 years.
In recent weeks, the proposal has been the talk of the town, and in March, about 100 residents and landscapers met with proponents at the town library.
Since that meeting, some landscapers have taken voluntary steps to reduce blower noise. Rob Carr, who owns Superior Landscape, has instructed his crews to lower the speed of the blowers and to reduce their use in the downtown area.
“We are using our rakes more and more,” said Carr.
On a recent day, three of Carr’s landscapers set off to clean an oceanfront yard in Marblehead. The blowers, said Carr, are typically on for an hour at a time during spring and fall cleanups. Within 20 minutes, much of the yard debris — leaves, twigs, tree branches, weeds, and grass clippings — were blown into piles.
The backpack blowers weigh about 20 pounds and each register about 80 decibels. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, noise levels over 75 decibels can cause hearing loss and are harmful to human health.
As he positioned the barrel of the blower toward the grass clippings, Fred DeVito, a Superior Landscape worker, pointed to the blower and said, “It makes the job so much easier than using a rake.”
In coffee shops downtown, some longtime residents say all the talk about leaf blowers has caused them to pull out their rakes again.
Beverly Bucknam believes that government should not take a stand on the tools a person uses for gardening, and does not support a ban on the blowers. Nonetheless, all of the discussion has convinced her that leaf blowers are not good for the environment. She has instructed her husband to put their blower away for good.
“We’re not going to use it anymore; we’re going back to the rake,” she said.
Starr Campbell, who sat across from Bucknam and sipped coffee, said she prefers rakes and plans to vote for the ban at Town Meeting. “They’re noise and air polluters, and are unnecessary,” she said.
Among elected officials there is no consensus, and no town boards or committees have taken an official stand on the issue.
Public Health director Andrew Petty said his department planned to research the machines, and how they affect people’s health and hearing. Selectwoman Judy Jacobi also said she needed more information about the impact the blowers have on people and the environment. One selectman, Harry C. Christensen Jr., said government should not create rules to restrict how people groom their yards. He would support an hourly restriction of the machines. Currently, landscapers can operate from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in town.
In Swampscott, residents who oppose leaf blowers met with selectmen earlier in the spring. The board took no official action but recommended that an open forum be held in the coming months. Swampscott protesters, led by Dr. Eric Bachman, plan to put the issue before voters at next year’s Town Meeting.
Jill Sullivan, a member of the Swampscott Board of Selectmen, thinks residents need to discuss options — such as limiting hours of operation and regulating decibel levels — before initiating a ban. “In my view if you start with a range of possibilities then people are more accepting, instead of cramming a summertime ban down their throat,” she said.
But Bachman, who specializes in internal medicine and endocrinology, said the town needed to take action to limit the blowers. He said the machines can exacerbate existing health problems, and worsen allergies.
He likened the machines’ blowing power, at 200 miles per hour, to a Category 5 hurricane. “Anything that’s on the ground gets resuspended, like dust, pesticides, pollen, even feces from animals. And then it forms a dust cloud that can last not just minutes but hours or days,” he said.