With the changing season comes yet another conversation about the town-wide use of gas-powered leaf blowers and their impact on the health and wellbeing of both humans and the environment. Huntington CALM, an organization that has been working to prohibit or limit the use of gas leaf blowers (or GLBs) for the last decade, has made serious progress in municipalities across Long Island.
While the Town of Huntington has restricted commercial gas blower use on the weekends and reduced the times in which homeowners can use them, advocates for safer landscaping methods say they haven’t done enough. In Northport Village, officials toyed with the idea of passing local laws related to GLBs in 2021 but haven’t moved on the issue since.
Town of Huntington
In October 2021, the TOH passed a local law to restrict the times in which property owners and commercial landscapers could operate gas leaf blowers. In Huntington, GLBs may be used by landscapers and property owners from Monday through Friday, between the hours of 8am and 6pm for no more than two hours per property. On the weekends, landscapers are allowed to operate GLBs on residential properties on Saturdays (from Labor Day to Memorial Day) from 9am to 5pm, and property owners are allowed to use them on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from 9am to 5pm, for no longer than one hour.
At the October 12, 2021 Huntington Town Board meeting, Councilwoman Joan Cergol said hundreds of residents had been “literally begging for relief from the nonstop crippling sound and noxious odors being released from gas-powered leaf blowers.” Cergol also noted the many dangers of GLBs to human and animal health, and the surrounding ecosystem. She said that the most recent law change was a compromise designed by herself and then-Councilman Ed Smyth.
“Here’s the thing,” Cergol said. “Peace and quiet, and enjoyment of our properties, to breathe fresh clean air in our own backyards shouldn’t be limited to summer weekends and holidays.” She said that Huntington residents and landscapers should welcome the innovation of battery-powered leaf blowers and other advancements in the landscaping industry and that “progress is progress, no matter how small,” but the town’s work is not done in regards to limiting the use of GLBs.
There is currently no existing law that specifically restricts the use of gas leaf blowers in Northport Village code. The “Noise” section states that people may not make “unreasonable noise,” which is “any excessive or unusually loud sound or any sound which creates public inconvenience, annoyance, alarm or disturbance.” There are subsections of code that address specific types of noise, such as barking dogs, bells and chimes, music, motorboats and outdoor equipment, where leaf blowers are included along with mowers, saws and garden tools. According to the code, these types of outdoor equipment can only be used between the hours of 8am-9pm, with no exceptions for weekends or certain months listed.
In September 2021, the previous Northport Village administration held a public hearing on reducing the times in which landscapers and residents would be allowed to use GLBs. The proposed law would have prohibited the use of gas- or diesel-powered leaf blowers between the dates of June 15 and September 15. Leaf blowers would only be permitted from September 16 until June 14, on a set timeline: no earlier than 8am and no later than 6pm on weekdays, and no earlier than 9am or later than 5pm on weekends and public holidays.
The law change did not move forward after several local landscapers and homeowners voiced their opposition at the hearing. Village resident and professional landscaper John Kirby said, “This is selective to one particular industry. If it’s a noise ordinance that you are going after, that’s fine, then it better be all noise.” He mentioned the use of power washers, tree cutters and sprinklers and said the issue is that there are too many landscapers in town, some that aren’t licensed, and the Village should be enforcing that issue instead of prohibiting GLB use.
Bill Koran, another local landscaper, said that he runs six to eight crews per day and needs about three leaf blowers per crew. Transitioning to battery-powered leaf blowers would be too expensive for his landscaping company, costing upwards of $1,500 per blower, he said, and the blowers would have to be charged throughout the day, which would require additional batteries and access to electricity. Battery-powered leaf blowers aren’t as efficient; the cost of landscaping would have to increase and residents wouldn’t be happy, he added.
“I think the idea of going to the electric blower is not a bad idea. I just don’t feel that the technology is there yet,” Koran said.
Dr. Bonnie Sager, co-founder of Huntington CALM (Clean Alternative Landscape Methods) has been working with municipalities across Long Island on implementing laws that limit the health and environmental hazards of gas leaf blowers.
Sager explained that compared to other areas on Long Island, Huntington has not been as receptive to environmental initiatives including the restriction of GLBs, as well as promoting rain barrels, composting leaves and other similar programs. She said that Councilwoman Cergol has been open to change, but Supervisor Smyth and other board members have not moved forward with any impactful changes.
Gas-powered blowers are not only a noise issue, but a medical concern as well, Sager said; Huntington CALM originated after reports on the negative health impacts of these devices were made public ten years ago. The organization was founded by Sager, an optometrist, and Dr. Lucy Weinstein, a pediatrician and chairperson of the New York Environmental Health Committee for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“We looked at all the medical facts and said, ‘These are really not good for people, and their kids, and their pets,’” Sager said. The co-founders brought information on the harms of GLBs to the Suffolk County Medical Society, and they now have letters from major healthcare providers including Northwell Health, Mount Sinai and Montefiore that indicate the health risks associated with these blowers.
“The medical community is now calling noise the new second-hand smoke,” Sager told the Journal in an interview this week. Noise, she explained, can have very negative effects on the body, including raising cortisol levels and blood pressure, and increasing the risk of hearing loss and hearing disorders like tinnitus.
Additionally, gas-powered leaf blowers give off toxic emissions that contain four of the World Health Organization’s top carcinogens: benzene, butadiene, formaldehyde and toluene. Thirty percent of the gasoline used in a two-stroke leaf blower engine, Sager explained, goes unburned during use and back into the air, leaving behind a cloud of toxins so minute (they’re called fine particulate matter) that they can easily enter the lungs and go into the bloodstream. These particulates can also remain suspended in the air for many hours.
“Using a gas leaf blower for one hour is the same as driving a passenger car 1,100 miles,” Sager said. “Imagine two to three guys having them going at one time? This is called ‘close point source pollution’ and it’s right in front of your house.”
On top of the gas emissions of leaf blowers, users are aerosolizing whatever is on the lawn, Sager said, which can include fungicides, pesticides, fertilizers, driveway debris and brake dust. Not only are these chemicals being breathed in, she said, but when they are blown into the street and there’s a rainstorm, they are left in the runoff that enters the harbor, contributing to excessive nitrogen in local waterways and algae blooms.
Sager also called the use of GLBs among landscape workers a “social justice issue.” The workers are most at risk, she said, not only because of exposure to constant vibration, which impairs the neuromuscular system, and loud noise, but also because of the close-contact emissions that will likely lead to conditions like lung cancer. “Many of these landscapers probably don’t have generous health insurance, if they have any health insurance,” she said, noting the cost to society when under or uninsured workers are treated for these GLB-induced diseases. “They are sacrificing their future health so that we don’t see a grass clipping,” she said.
On Long Island, several towns and villages have summer bans for GLBs, including North Hempstead, the Village of Garden City, Roslyn, Southampton and East Hampton. In Westchester, nearly every town has restrictions on gas leaf blowers, with Larchmont being the most progressive – they banned them all year long and only allow battery-powered blowers to be used for two months in the spring and fall for cleanup. Nyack and White Plains are on track to enact similar laws.
The goal for Huntington CALM is to have homeowners and landscapers transition to battery-powered leaf blowers and to limit the use of blowers in general. “That’s what we’re asking for. It’s not that battery blowers are perfect, they can also aerosolize, but this will get rid of the toxic emissions,” Sager explained.
Today’s commercial-grade electric leaf blowers are comparable in work production to gas-powered blowers, she said. A new model by Makita, Sager noted, can run up to four hours and reach speeds up to 160mph.
“It’s a mindset. People don’t like change, and landscapers are people,” Sager concluded. “They want to keep doing what they’ve always done. But if you keep repeating what you’ve always done, you get the same results over and over again, which means you’re going to have some health issues and you’re probably going to cause your clients health issues.”
For more information about the impacts of gas-powered leaf blowers, listen to this podcast episode featuring Dr. Bonnie Sager from Huntington CALM