It’s leaf blower season, adding new layers of unwelcome noise to the cacophony of daily life.
Leaf blowers — along with gas-powered lawn mowers, string trimmers, chainsaws and other garden equipment, also generate an alarming amount of air pollution. Some machines emit as much pollution in an hour as driving hundreds of miles in a car.
A recently released report by the Maryland PIRG Foundation, called “Lawn Care Goes Electric: Why It’s Time to Switch to a New Generation of Clean, Quiet Electric Lawn Equipment,” attempts to quantify the public health risks and potential damage.
Analyzing U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data, the report found that gas-powered lawn and garden equipment in Maryland emitted an estimated 597 tons of harmful “fine particulate” air pollution in 2020 — an amount equivalent to the pollution emitted by 6.4 million gas-powered cars over the course of a year.
Montgomery County, which is phasing out the use of gas-powered leaf blowers and leaf vacuums, ranked 16th among U.S. counties for “fine particulate” air pollution in 2020, with Prince George’s, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties all ranking in the top 100 as well.
“It’s absurd that we have been tolerating so much harmful pollution and noise just to cut grass and maintain landscapes,” said Maryland PIRG Foundation Director Emily Scarr.
The pollutants emitted by gas-powered lawn equipment include fine particulates (PM2.5), ozone-forming nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and air toxics such as benzene, 1,3-butadiene and formaldehyde. Exposure to these pollutants has been linked to health problems including asthma attacks, reproductive ailments, mental health challenges, cancer and premature deaths. Because they burn fossil fuels, gas lawn mowers and leaf blowers also emit carbon dioxide, the leading contributor to climate change.
The report estimates the emissions of each pollutant and health impacts for the state and on a county-by-county basis. It also calculates the benefit of taking the gas-powered equipment out of circulation, comparing it to the equivalent of taking a certain number of gas-powered cars off the road.
“Air pollution from lawn equipment isn’t some big, distant problem — it’s happening right in our own backyards,” said Tony Dutzik, associate director and senior policy analyst at Frontier Group, a nonprofit think tank that focuses on transportation and environmental policy, who is one of the authors of the new study. “The data in this report shows that emissions from lawn equipment are an important issue in every part of our country.”
The report recommends that local and state governments use electric equipment on public property and provide financial incentives to encourage the widespread adoption of electric lawn equipment by residents. It further suggests that cities and states consider restrictions on the sale and use of the most-polluting fossil fuel-powered equipment.
“The good news is, for those who chose to not use a rake or other manual tool, cleaner, quieter electric-powered lawn equipment is capable, affordable and readily available,” Scarr said.
Those recommendations align with sections of the preliminary Maryland Climate Pathway report, which the Maryland Department of the Environment issued earlier this year, with suggestions for how the state can meet its aggressive climate goals. A final version of the pathway report is due out next month.
Earlier this fall, the Montgomery County Council voted 10-1 to phase out gas-powered leaf blowers and leaf vacuums. Sales of those items will be prohibited in the county beginning on July 1, 2024, and their use will be banned altogether a year later — with exceptions for large-scale agricultural operations.
As he signed the legislation in September, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) said the county was “putting the health and safety of all our community members first,” and said the government would design a rebate program to help residents defray the cost of purchasing electric leaf blowers and vacuums.
Del. Linda M. Foley (D-Montgomery) introduced legislation in the 2023 General Assembly session that would have phased out the use of gas-powered leaf blowers and vacuums, similar to the Montgomery County measure. In addition to several environmental groups, supporters of the bill included the National Association of Landscaping Professionals and the Humane Society of the United States. The Maryland State Firefighters Association supported the legislation but sought an exemption for the Department of Natural Resources, Forestry division fire management team, arguing that battery-powered leaf blowers do not operate for as long a period as gas-powered units.
Several individuals testified against the measure, as did The Maryland Arborist Association, Inc., which argued that the bill would cost tree care companies — and their customers — more money.
The House Health and Government Operations Committee took no action on Foley’s legislation. But Foley said Monday she would be back with similar bills in the 2024 session, with some changes.
Foley said she is changing the phase-out period of her prior legislation to make it “a little more generous” and is expanding the list of equipment covered to include all “non-road” fossil-fuel engines.
“It is a small portion of fossil fuel emissions [in the state], but every bit of it matters,” she said.
Foley said she anticipates putting in a separate bill regarding sales of leaf blowers. In all likelihood, she said, consumers would be required to buy electric yard equipment when their older, gas-powered equipment breaks down.
By Josh Kurtz