Time for Saanich to Ban Gas-Powered Leaf Blowers
Leaf blowers contribute to noise pollution, produce excessive and dangerous exhaust emissions, and re-suspend dust, all contributing to negative health and environmental impacts.
It’s time for Saanich Council to:
Ban gas-powered leaf blowers,
Support a recycling program for obsolete machines,
Regulate the use of electric blowers to ensure their noise output is below safe thresholds, and in compliance with Saanich’s noise suppression bylaw.
This petition was submitted to Saanich Council on May 17, 2021. You can read the full letter accompanying the petition here.
See below for an outline of Council's response to the petition and campaign progress.
On May 24th, Oak Bay Council unanimously voted to implement a 3 year phase out of all gas-powered gardening tools.
Why we should ban leaf blowers:
Negative Health Impacts of Noise Pollution
In addition to being a huge annoyance and negatively impacting well-being, noise pollution can have serious and long-term impacts on our health (source 1; source 2; source 3; source 4). Leaf blowers produce noise well above healthy limits, as high as 115 decibels at the source, and 64-78 decibels within 15 meters, and more than 80 decibels for older models (source).
For comparison, normal breathing is 10 decibels, a soft whisper 30, normal conversation 60, city traffic or a noisy restaurant 80, a rock concert 110-120, a chainsaw 110, and a shotgun blast 170 (source 1; source 2). Bear in mind that decibels are measured on a logarithmic scale, which means that an increase of 10 decibels is equivalent to a tenfold increase in sound intensity, or roughly a doubling of loudness (source).
Work Safe BC stipulates that employers must provide hearing protection to workers who are or who may be exposed to noise levels exceeding 82 decibels (see 7.3, source). And noise at this level for eight hours can cause irreparable hearing damage (source 1; source 2).
Unlike other types of small engine, like lawn mowers, noise from leaf blowers has low frequency components that allows it to travel long distances, penetrate building walls, and persist at high levels far from the source (source 1; source 2). Noise pollution of this kind is linked with many health issues, sleep disturbance, and can be an acute source of annoyance (see for example source 1; source 2; source 3; source 4; source 5; source 6).
Noise Pollution Impairs Sleep
Noise disturbs sleep, and poor quality sleeps results in stress, fatigue, and other negative health effects (source). In Europe, where better numbers exist, 8 million people suffer from sleep disturbances, and 900,000 from hypertension as a result of environmental noise (see source 1; source 2; source 3).
Noise Pollution and Negative Impact to Cognitive Functions
Noise interferes with cognitive functions, including attention, concentration, memory, reading ability, and decreases motivation (source). The long-term consequences of these effects on children's development are particularly significant (source). Numerous studies have found that children exposed to chronic aircraft noise, for example, have impaired reading comprehension and long-term memory (see source 1; source 2; source 3; source 4; source 5).
Other Health Impacts of Noise Pollution
Health studies have reported the association between noise and medical problems including:
Myocardial infarction (source);
Cardiovascular disease (source);
Mental disorders (source);
Immune system issues and birth defects (source).
Noise pollution may also exacerbate other existing health issues (source 1; source 2), and is often felt most acutely by those living in lower income neighbourhoods (source 1; source 2).
Dust and Respiratory Issues
Leaf blowers also kick up dust and particulate matter, which can exacerbate respiratory issues and other health issues by re-suspending dust which can contain a number of harmful particles, including hydrocarbons from gasoline, animal droppings, spores, fungi, pollens, pesticides and herbicides, fertilizers, brake-lining dust and tire residue and heavy metals (source 1; source 2; source 3; source 4).
Gas-Powered leaf blowers are bad for the environment
Saanich has begun to step up and take climate change seriously, and has declared a climate emergency (source). Tackling the emissions from gas-powered leaf blowers will help contribute to these efforts.
Gas-powered leaf blowers rely on obsolete 2-stroke engines, which are considerably less efficient than other engines (source).
The California EPA estimated that operating a commercial leaf blower for one hour would emit more smog-forming pollutants than driving a 2017 Toyota Camry for about 1,100 miles (source).
A 2011 test compared the emissions of two different leaf blowers to those of a Ford F-150 SVT Raptor crew cab (source).
This test concluded that to equate the hydrocarbon emissions of about a half-hour of yard work with a two-stroke leaf blower, “you'd have to drive a Raptor for 3,887 miles, or the distance from northern Texas to Anchorage, Alaska” (source).
The experiment concluded that a four-stroke leaf blower produces 6.8 times more oxides of nitrogen (pollutants involved in smog and acid rain), 13.5 times more carbon monoxide, and 36 times non-methane hydrocarbons (mostly unburned gas, which is poisonous and carcinogenic), as compared with the truck.
The two-stroke engine produced twice as much oxides of nitrogen, 23 times as much carbon monoxide and 299 times the non-methane hydrocarbons.
Other Negative Environmental Impacts
Use of leaf blowers can negatively impact soil quality. Leaf blowers can blow away important top soil and damage plants, "they also compact your soil making it harder for air and water to permeate and blow away recently applied dry fertilizers" (source 1; source 2). Removing thin mulch layers of leaf particulate and grass clippings also starves soil microbes, reduces the soils ability to absorb and retain water (source). Leaf blowers are also fatal to insect life in several ways: they can outright kill insects, and they can remove or degrade insect habitat (source 1). Declining insect populations impacts the health of other species and ecosystems. Noise pollution has also been found to adversely affect bird populations by interfering with mating (source 1; source 2).
There are Alternatives
There are numerous alternatives to leaf blowers (source1; source 2). Electric leaf blowers are 40 to 70% quieter than gas machines, as much as 90% more efficient, and can get the job done (see source 1; source 2).
Manual methods, like rakes and brooms, are even more efficient, dramatically quieter, produce less dust (source), and have other added benefits like increasing physical activity.
Urban noise is not inevitable; cities can minimize noise by altering infrastructure design and by enforcing and improving existing noise bylaws (source). It’s time for Saanich to take noise pollution seriously, and to step up and take action on leaf blowers.
Hundreds of jurisdictions across North America have already banned gas-powered leaf blowers or severely restricted their use (source 1; source 2; source 3); source 4). The City of Ojai, California, recently went a step further and prohibited almost all gas-powered landscaping equipment and transitioned its entire fleet of landscaping equipment to electric (source 1; source 2). California recently passed a law to ban the sale of small off-road engines (a category that includes gas-powered leaf blowers) on January 1, 2024.
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Those interested in additional reading on the issue of noise pollution and leaf blowers may also find these articles of interest:
CityLab – The Devil’s Hair Dryer.
Oak Bay News – The Science Behind Why Leaf Blowers are so Irritating.
More the listening type? Find somewhere out of earshot of a leaf blower and give this fantastic podcast a listen to:
99% Invisible: Sound and Health - Cities
On May 17th, 2021, I submitted a petition, signed by over 500 Saanich and area residents, to Saanich Council, residents also flooded Council's inbox with letters about the issue. In response, on May 31st, Mayor Haynes put forward a motion, that would have had Council consider the idea of asking staff to prepare a phased in ban on gas-powered leaf blowers at the next Strategic Plan Check-In.
The motion did not pass, and Councillors Plant, DeVries, Harper, Brice, and Mercereau vote against the motion. You can watch all of the discussion and debate around the motion here, with content on H.3 (leaf blowers) starting at 2:51:00. This motion was followed by a second motion (~3:15:00), made by Councillor DeVries (and seconded by Councillor Harper), that would refer the broader issue of noise pollution to the next Strategic Plan Check-In meeting. This motion passed, with Councillors Plant, Brownoff, Brice, and Mayor Haynes voting against.
The Strategic Plan Check-In was held on September 23rd, at 7:00 pm. Council decided to leave 'Noise and noise pollution' parked in the 'Bike Rack' (aka the Parking Lot), despite receiving 50 letters from residents asking them to add tackling noise pollution in the district to the Strategic Plan.
The issue was raised in questions and debate, most notably by Councillor Plant who asked questions about the issue (at 58:50) and mentioned the possibility of exploring interim measures, as opposed to a full review of Saanich's Noise Ordinances (at 1:37:00).Staff commented that exploring the issue of noise pollution in a comprehensive way - that is conducting a full review of the bylaws - would take resources away from other priority areas (1:00:00). Instead, staff noted that items in the Bike Rack are addressed on a more ad hoc basis, whereby staff may chip away at smaller elements relating to these issues when they have time, and in the context of other projects.
Noise pollution continues to be an issue in the District of Saanich, Saanich's noise bylaws are in serious need of revision. You can read them here:
Saanich Noise Suppression Bylaws (1993).
I will continue to campaign on the issue, and am encouraging neighbours who feel passionate about issues relating to noise pollution here in Saanich, or any issue in our community, please write to the Mayor and Council to express your views.
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Oak Bay - May 24, 2022
Unanimously Votes to Phase Out Gas-Powered Gardening Equipment
On May 24th, 2022, Oak Bay Council unanimously voted in favour of a 3 year phase out all gas-powered gardening equipment. They did so after a petition and campaign by Oak Bay resident Francis Landy.
I am grateful to Francis for his hard work on this campaign and to everyone who signed the petition, wrote, or spoke to Council. I hope that Oak Bay's leadership will help inspire Saanich and other municipalities to step up and take this straightforward action that will reduce noise pollution and emissions, and improve well-being!
You can learn more from the CBC, CHEK News, and the Times Colonist.