For urban and suburban dwellers alike, gas-guzzling leaf blowers are often regarded as a noisy nuisance — a scourge not only on peace and quiet, but public health and the environment. Now a Boston city councilor is taking aim at them with a new proposal that could result in restrictions on gas-powered lawn equipment throughout the city.
The proposal, introduced last week by City Councilor Kenzie Bok, is seeking a public hearing to discuss options for regulating gasoline-powered lawn and garden tools. Bok’s proposal singled out leaf blowers specifically that “utilize fuel inefficiently and release all emissions directly into the environment.”
“We’re really taking the first step, which is that we want to hear from the public,” said Bok, who is working with the city’s Environmental Justice, Resiliency, and Parks Committee to schedule a hearing date. “Our hope would be that after having a robust public conversation, we would be at position to file something, like an actual ordinance on this.”
If Boston were to regulate leaf blowers, the city would join more than 100 municipalities across the country, such as Washington, D.C., and Naples, Fla., that ban or curtail their use. In Massachusetts, several cities have already passed ordinances cracking down on leaf blowers, including Cambridge and Somerville. In October, California became the first state to phase out the sale of gas-powered landscaping tools by 2024.
Fossil fuel-powered lawn equipment has huge ecological impacts. In 2018, Americans used nearly 3 billion gallons of gasoline to fuel their mowers and other garden equipment, federal data shows, equivalent to the yearly energy use of more than 3 million households.
Advocates say that in addition to cutting emissions, banning gas-powered lawn tools would have positive effects on public health. Leaf blowers, lawnmowers, and other gardening equipment with two-stroke engines produce toxic compounds like nitrogen oxide, reactive organic gases, and particulate matter, exposure to which can increase the risk of respiratory illness, cardiovascular disease, and other ailments.
Landscapers who operate the equipment are at the greatest risk of suffering adverse health effects, said Richard Reibstein, a Boston University lecturer on sustainability and environmental policy. Workers who use backpack blowers are also prone to hearing loss and vibration syndrome, a condition caused by the prolonged use of vibrating hand-held tools.
“This is really an occupational health issue, and the worker is in such a vulnerable position, and they are often undocumented immigrants,” said Reibstein, who is also a program director for Quiet Communities, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit that fights noise and air pollution. “It’s brutal and they don’t have a choice.”
Bok said her interest in regulating the equipment stemmed from constituent complaints. She pointed to an affordable housing complex in her district — which includes Mission Hill, Longwood, Audubon Circle, Fenway, Kenmore, Back Bay, Beacon Hill, and the West End — where residents on the ground floor prefer to keep their windows open to stay cool. But they live next to an area where leaf blowers are regularly used.
“People who live there will call us and be like, ‘Look I’ve got to choose between being uncomfortable because my windows [are] shut or having my windows open and breathing in these fumes,’ ” Bok said.
Reibstein said communities interested in regulating gas-powered lawn tools should incentivize contractors and consumers with grants, loans, or buyback programs that allow people to trade their gas-powered devices for electric ones. Lexington state Representative Michelle Ciccolo, for example, has proposed a bill that would create a grant program to help cities and towns transition to low-noise and low-emissions landscaping equipment.
But even gradual phaseouts can prompt backlash. Lexington residents voted in November to tightly restrict the use of gas-powered blowers before eventually prohibiting them. Now commercial landscapers in Lexington are trying to have the ban overturned.
But not all landscapers are reluctant to give up gas-powered equipment. George Carrette, owner of EcoQuiet Lawn Care in Concord, said his customers are willing to pay a premium for quiet and environmentally friendly landscaping, and today’s battery-powered equipment is much more effective than it was when he started his business eight years ago.
“You have to have a carrot and a stick approach. You can’t just go up to all these landscapers, who are tough people, and say, ‘Hey, you have to do it this way,’ ” he said, of convincing landscapers to make the switch from gas to electric. “It’s important that we all as landscapers and citizens work together as team on this, and we don’t make something that’s adversarial.”