More Global Action

The concept of ambient noise as “the new second-hand smoke,” and an increasing public-health problem, is gaining worldwide recognition. Two of the latest, significant illustrations:

1) “Ssssh: As cities surge, some seek a new aim - peace and quiet.“ This is a Reuters report, by Carey L. Biron and Adela Suliman, which includes our Washington-based initiative to phase out gas-powered leaf blowers, but covers developments around the world. For instance:

Efforts to slow the pace of city life range from the literal - with many cities pushing for lower speed limits on their roads - to the imaginative, such as looking for ways to promote mindfulness.

Many of them include a recognition of the rising importance of public spaces that are geared more toward quiet and contemplation than efficiency and technology.

Noise, for example, is the “new secondhand smoke”, according to the The Quiet Coalition, a program of Massachusetts-based non-profit., Quiet Communities, Inc.

“We’re in a noisier and noisier world,” said the group’s executive director, Jamie L. Banks. Finding ways to change that is “urgent”, she said.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has said the health risks of living in noisy cities can include hearing loss, cardiovascular disease and sleep disorders.

2) “Why Everything Is Getting Louder,” by Bianca Bosker, in the new issue of The Atlantic, also discussed mounting public-health challenges. For instance:

Scientists have known for decades that noise—even at the seemingly innocuous volume of car traffic—is bad for us. “Calling noise a nuisance is like calling smog an inconvenience,” former U.S. Surgeon General William Stewart said in 1978. In the years since, numerous studies have only underscored his assertion that noise “must be considered a hazard to the health of people everywhere.”

Say you’re trying to fall asleep. You may think you’ve tuned out the grumble of trucks downshifting outside, but your body has not: Your adrenal glands are pumping stress hormones, your blood pressure and heart rate are rising, your digestion is slowing down. Your brain continues to process sounds while you snooze, and your blood pressure spikes in response to clatter as low as 33 decibels—slightly louder than a purring cat….

Experts say your body does not adapt to noise. Large-scale studies show that if the din keeps up—over days, months, years—noise exposure increases your risk of high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, and heart attacks, as well as strokes, diabetes, dementia, and depression.

Both reports are well worth reading, and acting on.

From Australia: 'The Case for Returning to the Rake'

In October, springtime weather is just around the corner for those living in the Southern Hemisphere.

In anticipation of springtime lawn-maintenance, Dusty Miller of the Sydney Morning Herald, writes about the development she most dreads, the onslaught of the leaf blowers:

Aside from jet skis, I can’t think of many small machines that have caused as much ongoing fuming, in both senses of the word. When the council [city government] crew come down with their two-stroke petrol versions, the smell drifts through our bedroom window like a pungent summer breeze made up of hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide. Hours later, a slow-moving, noisy truck spurts exhaust as it trundles down to suck up the piled leaves as best it can. By then, of course, most of the leaves have blown back to the gutter.

I’m not the first to observe the staggering inefficiency of the leaf blower as a marshaller of leaves. That’s what’s so infuriating. Everyone knows they’re hopeless at this simple task – the only task they have, in fact - so why are they still here?

Check out the full article for Dusty Miller’s answer. Which is delivered with Australian gusto.

‘Complete Ecological Disasters’: Cities in Flanders Move Toward a Ban on Two-Stroke Gas-Powered Blowers

From The Brussels Times, this report on international efforts to move away from hyper-polluting, dangerously noisy, technologically obsolete two-stroke gas-powered blowers. Headline and lead image below:

Here is sample from the story:

The new Flemish government is demanding that 300 Flemish mayors make efforts to replace the use of two-stroke engine leaf-blowers, plant cutters and hedge trimmers, with more environmentally friendly devices, reports Nieuwsblad….

“There are so many disadvantages to two-stroke devices that you cannot describe them as anything other than complete ecological disasters,” said lecturer at Thomas More University of Applied Sciences, Mark Pecqueur.

Congratulations to our friends across the seas.

Washington Post: The Spreading Effects of a Hyper-Noisy Environment

Last month, David Owen reported in The New Yorker about the mounting evidence about the damaging public-health effects of noise. As The Atlantic has reported, federal health authorities have warned with increasing urgency about hearing loss as a new epidemic and ambient noise as “the new second-hand smoke.”

Now Consumer Reports weighs in, as published in The Washington Post.

Under the headline “The negative health effects of too much noise go well beyond hearing,” the story emphasizes the surprising public health effects of ever-heightening urban and workplace noise. Samples:

Regular exposure to loud noise has been associated with cardiovascular problems such as high blood pressure in a number of studies, says Liz Masterson, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). One CDC study she co-wrote, published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine in 2018, found higher rates of hypertension and high cholesterol in people who were regularly exposed to loud noises at work…

The researchers concluded that as many as 14 percent of cases of hypertension and 9 percent of cases of high cholesterol were potentially a result of noise exposure — possibly because of the stress of a loud working environment.


 A 2018 World Health Organization analysis of 34 studies linked noise exposure to poorer reading comprehension, standardized test scores and long-term memory.

This connection makes sense, says Nicholas Reed, an assistant professor in the department of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. After all, who doesn’t find it hard to concentrate on a book if someone is vacuuming in the next room?… The CDC says that as many as 12.5 percent of kids and teens ages 6 to 19 have already incurred some damage to their hearing.

But there may be issues other than distraction at play, Reed says. Scientists think noise could cause stress in children, just as it does in adults.

The evidence accumulates; thanks to Consumer Reports and the Post for continuing to direct attention to these findings.

'The New Yorker' on the Worldwide Consequences of Noise

David Owen, a renowned long-time author for The New Yorker, has a new article in the magazine, with the provocative headline: “Is Noise Pollution the Next Big Public Health Crisis?”

The piece is not explicitly about leaf blowers but instead about the larger phenomenon of ambient noise, and its effects on human and animal life. Sample:

Ears evolved in an acoustic environment that was nothing like the one we live in today. Daniel Fink—a retired California internist, whose own, milder hyperacusis began in a noisy restaurant on New Year’s Eve, 2007, and who is now an anti-noise activist—told me, “Until the industrial revolution, urban dwellers’ sleep was disturbed mostly by the early calls of roosters from back-yard chicken coops or nearby farms.” The first serious sufferers of occupational hearing loss were probably workers who pounded on metal: blacksmiths, church-bell ringers, the people who built the boilers that powered the steam engines that created the modern world. (Audiologists used to refer to a particular high-frequency hearing-loss pattern as a “boilermaker’s notch.”)

The whole piece is very much worth reading. And, for parallel with the particular focus of the site, consider this parallel argument from The Atlantic:

The biggest worry of today’s public-health community is not, of course, leaf blowers—it’s the opioid disaster, plus addictions of other forms. The next-biggest worry is obesity, plus diabetes and the other ills that flow from it.

But coming up fast on the list is hearing loss. According to a 2017 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-quarter of Americans ages 20 to 69 who reported good to excellent hearing actually had diminished hearing. This is largely caused by rising levels of ambient urban noise—sirens, traffic, construction, leaf blowers—which can lead to a range of disorders, from high blood pressure to depression to heart disease. “When I started out, I’d see people in their 60s with hearing problems,” says Robert Meyers, an ENT specialist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Now I’m seeing them in their 40s.”…

Hearing damage is cumulative. When the tiny, sound-sensing hairlike cells, called stereocilia, in the inner ear are damaged—usually by extended exposure to sounds of 85 decibels or above—they are generally gone for good. For the landscapers (and homeowners) who use gas-powered blowers—a foot away from their ears—the most powerful can produce sounds of 100 decibels or more. Meyers told me, “Each time I see these crews, I think to myself: 10 years from now, they’ll be on the path to premature deafness.

Dealing With a Neighbor

A writer who lives in a medium-sized city in the West writes about this predicament. (This letter is used with the reader’s permission but without her name, and with identifying details removed.)

I have been thinking about the 2019 Atlantic story, “Get Off My Lawn”.

The noise and smell from gas-powered lawn equipment, leaf blowers especially, is something that has upset me for a long time. 

I work from home in a beautiful, tree-lined neighborhood of [my town]. One of my neighbors, who lives four doors down, leaf blows every day. He is a nice person and a good neighbor. This is something I have endured for 16 years.

In my professional life, I have no problem speaking up for what I believe in. But on this issue, I have long felt this was a “first-world” problem and that my community’s leaders had more pressing issues to contend with. This article helped me realize this is a pressing issue as well, causing considerable harm to many. I am now in the process of organizing with several people working at all levels of government to reduce the harmful effects of gas-powered lawn equipment in our state…. 

I’m excited for the opportunities ahead to make change on this issue that has troubled me for so long. But I’m also a bit scared - this is something about which people are passionate, and I expect once I step out on it in a public way I will be attacked by some.

I don’t intend to let this fear of attack deter my efforts, but would appreciate any advice you might have. How do you deal with personal confrontations when working on this issue in your community? How do you respond to people who passionately disagree with you on this topic?

I have made a few attempts to inform neighbors of our community’s existing noise restriction hours, and to talk with my neighbor about his usage but it has not gone well. As I get more vocal and outspoken I worry about how to handle the direct confrontations I’m likely to experience at public meetings and on social media. I would appreciate any advice you might have in this regard. 

Good and serious questions.

Our experience in Washington D.C. has been that polite, friendly presentation of facts that most people aren’t aware of does the job, over time. Most people don’t realize that two-stroke gas-powered engines are the dirtiest form of machinery still in legal use — and that lawn equipment is the main area in which this obsolete technology hangs on. Most people aren’t aware of mounting public-health concern about hearing loss, which is most serious for the crews using the equipment but affects the American population as a whole. And most people aren’t aware of the rapidly expanding options in most effective, more affordable battery-powered equipment.

As we’ve argued in the nation’s capital, mandating the shift is a matter of accelerating the inevitable. Most people agree once they’ve seen the facts.

Canadian Chemist to CBC: 'Why Do We Put Up With This?'

This past weekend, the CBC’s well-known interviewer Michael Enright interviewed a Canadian chemist about why he is campaigning to get rid of, or reduce use of, gas-powered leafblowers.

The whole segment, with the title “Why do we put up with the ear-splitting obnoxiousness of leaf blowers?” is here. Sample:

Retired chemical engineer Monty McDonald… has been campaigning for a leaf blower ban for years because they cause both noise and air pollution.

McDonald worked with potential carcinogens in a chemical plant, where the safety of the workers was a top priority. 

"We got the levels in that plant down to 10 parts per million in the workplace, which was the OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] standard at that time," he said in conversation with The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright.

"Now you stand near a leaf blower and you're probably getting 10,000 parts per million exposure to hydrocarbons that are in gasoline and oil, and many of them are carcinogens."

Quiet Pensacola Weighs In

From Pensacola.

From Pensacola.

A strong editorial in the Pensacola News-Journal, by guest columnist John Herron. Samples:

Spring is in the air and commercial landscapers are revving up their gas leaf blowers. These backpack beasts blow winds faster than a hurricane, and they’re loud….  

I’ve lived in all parts of the country while in the Navy, and the commercial landscaping noise in our neighborhoods is louder than anywhere else I’ve lived. Roaring blowers continuing into the night is disturbing. Two, three and four blowers operating simultaneously is too many. Eight or eleven hours of cumulative blower noise on weekends is excessive. Hours of blower noise on Sunday mornings is too much.
Each has happened near our home, and the cumulative effect was very disruptive. In each instance, we tried to talk with neighbors to reduce noise and quiet our neighborhood. Some did and I am grateful. A few defiantly refused. Gas leaf blowers have become a test whether we know how to be neighborly.

And the conclusion:

A national organization dedicated to protecting children from environmental hazards explains “communities, children, and those occupationally exposed to noise have a right to be protected.” So why wait?

I worked as a landscaper in my youth and appreciate the work landscapers perform and beauty they deliver. Some say blowers save time, but the argument disregards time stolen from the rest of us. Are policy makers bold enough to ride on the backs of dragons and save us from this menace? For now, it seems there is only us. I don’t want to slay these air blowing monsters … just tame them.

Well put.

The Movement Goes International (Netherlands Report)

The Hague, minus leaf blowers (Vincent van Zeijst,  Wikimedia Commons )

The Hague, minus leaf blowers (Vincent van Zeijst, Wikimedia Commons)

From a reader in Holland:

I cannot recall when your group began highlighting noise-producing pollution-creating leafblowers that destroyed quiet weekends in Washington and elsewhere. But I used your articles to a good end, especially as our memories of Washington iare still very dear to us.

Quite a while ago I noticed those machines introduced in our quiet street here in The Hague so I started writing to the municipality. "Yes we'll inform such and such department" was the usual reply.

Writing to some of the many environmentally sound factions in the city council recently delivered  rather more positive reactions.

Lo and behold, I found city workers armed with the latest Husquarna electrical machine in our street today !

As Washington goes, so goes The Hague! At least on this point.

The Home of Walden Pond Votes For Leaf Blower Limits

Over the past twenty years, more than one hundred American cities, mainly in California, passed bans or limits on the use of gas-powered leafblowers.

Now additional cities are joining the list at an accelerating pace. The latest development is from Lincoln, Massachusetts, as reported in The Lincoln Squirrel. In the storied tradition of New England small-town governance, the measure was adopted by a public vote at a town meeting, 112-106.

The Squirrel article reports:

Supporters argued that gas-powered leaf blowers are unacceptably noisy and polluting and harm Lincoln’s rural atmosphere. “Gas blowers are the most polluting machine ever made,” one resident said. …

Eric Harris, who lives near Route 2, said he doesn’t notice the highway traffic noise much, “but the difference when you have a leaf blower is enormous, not just decibels but the kind of noise it makes — it’s the kind of noise you can’t escape from. I wish this proposal had been more draconian than it is.”

“This is a reasonable solution to a problem that’s resulted in over 70 unsolicited complaints on our website,” said John Koenig, a member of the Leaf Blower Study Committee, which has been studying the issue for several years and proposed the bylaw.

Lincoln includes Walden Pond. Had Henry David Thoreau been on hand for this town meeting, there presumably would have been at least 113 Yes votes.

Update The Quiet Communities site has a nice report on this development, with the headline “Making Thoreau Proud Again.”