Yale Daily News

New Haven alders and residents spent more than two hours discussing the impacts of gas-powered leaf blowers at a meeting of the City Services and Environmental Policy Committee last Thursday. 

The public hearing took place at the request of the Environmental Advisory Council, which has heard ongoing concerns about the devices. Testifiers said that gas-powered lawn mowers create air and noise pollution, damaging the health of humans and the natural environment. Meanwhile, a few landscapers expressed qualms about the expense and effectiveness of switching to electric leaf blowers. Alders on the committee indicated that they are interested in developing an ordinance to phase out the use of gas blowers over the next few years. Yale announced that it would phase out gas-powered ground equipment in 2017, but has yet to finish doing so.

“Most professionals who use leaf blowers have no idea how the machines affect them and the environment,” Laura Cahn, chairwoman of the Environmental Advisory Council, told the alders at Thursday’s hearing. “Leaf blowers strip topsoil and raise clouds of dust containing particulate matter, pesticides, gasoline, animal feces, viruses and lead and other metals. We are paying special attention to leaf blower noise and the health issues it causes users and bystanders, including permanent hearing loss and heart and brain damage.”

Dan Delventhal, who runs an eco-friendly landscaping business, pointed out that gas-powered leaf blowers are 10-20 times more polluting per gallon of fuel than cars. Mary Woolsey, outreach coordinator for the environmental advocacy group Quiet New Haven, described how the blowers exacerbate ozone pollution and asthma, which is disproportionately common in New Haven. 

Many residents described gas-powered blowers as an environmental justice issue. Chuck Elkins, who previously directed the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s noise control program, said that noise from a gas blower is most damaging to its operators, who are likely to experience hearing loss even if they wear ear protection. These operators often come from marginalized backgrounds and don’t have the “bargaining power” to raise concerns to their employers about the machines. Natalie Coe, a member of Quiet New Haven, added that the leaf blowers are also exceptionally harmful for children, the elderly and night shift workers who are at home during the day.

Other community members said gas blowers also present an inconvenience to the broader community. Yale School of Medicine professor and frontline hospital worker Karen Jubanyik, who first brought the issue of gas-powered blowers to the attention of the Environmental Advisory Council, said she moved out of New Haven in large part because of the “incessant noise” from leaf blowers. In addition to their high volume — at times over 100 decibels — gas leaf blowers emit a “disruptive” low-frequency sound that can penetrate through walls, Woolsey said. 

“We recognize that this is not the most pressing issue facing the world or facing New Haven, but it’s one that we can solve,” Coe said. “There are viable alternatives.”

The advocates cited recent gas blower bans in places like California and the District of Columbia, as evidence of the need for similar legislation in New Haven. They also referenced the increasing availability of electric leaf blowers, which have higher upfront costs but are cheaper to operate in the long term and last longer than gas blowers. Others called for alternative landscaping methods that don’t require any blowers at all, like mulch mowing.

Multiple speakers said that any ban on gas-powered leaf blowers should account for the needs of local landscaping companies. Elkins said that the ban in the District of Columbia was designed to have a three-year phase-out period because that is the typical lifespan of a gas-powered blower — ideally, landscapers would not have to replace their equipment sooner than usual in order to comply with the ordinance. He also referenced the potential for trade-in rebates to lessen the burden of the transition.

Despite these claims, some residents expressed concerns over the prospect of a ban. 

Gas-powered backpack blowers are “a very essential and irreplaceable tool,” Michael Frawley, who owns a local landscaping company, told the committee. “Their maneuverability, their power, their versatility and their efficiency are incomparable with other options available to us.”

He added that electric blowers are “all very cost-prohibitive” and that “none of them have the same abilities that a standard gas-powered blower has.” 

Other residents pointed out other electric blower limitations. Delventhal said that his crew generally charges one battery in their clients’ houses while they use the other. Andrew Hodes, executive director of the Jewish Cemetery Association of Greater New Haven, noted that his cemeteries did not have electricity and encompassed dozens of acres, making such a strategy impossible. 

After the public hearing, alders echoed some of these concerns. 

“This is a small business enterprise, it’s normally small mom-and-pop-type businesses,” Ward 28 Alder Shafiq Abdussabur said. “It seems that Hispanic, Latino workers are highly top among the worker lists… How do we get to the leaf blower transition without it hurting, financially, the worker? Because it seems like this cost may get passed down to the worker.” 

Ultimately, though, the alders on the committee expressed an interest in drafting an ordinance to phase out gas-powered blowers. Ward 10 Alder Anna Festa, who chairs the committee, said the committee will “have to be incredibly thoughtful” as it crafts the legislation. 

Among U.S. cities, New Haven has the seventh-highest rate of asthma, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. 

Sadie Bograd covers Nonprofits and Social Services. Last year, she covered City Hall. Originally from Kentucky, she is a sophomore in Davenport College majoring in Urban Studies.