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Dallas Could Ban Gas-Powered Leaf Blowers

Noisy lawn equipment isn’t just obnoxious. It’s a public health hazard.
Photo by Marco Verch shared under a Creative Commons license via Flickr

You can get specific with measurements of decibels and hydrocarbon emissions, or you can sum up the problem a little more broadly: Gas-powered leaf blowers are too loud and too dirty.

Operating a gas-powered leaf blower for an hour emits as much pollution as an 1,100-mile road trip. The sound is comparable to that of a rumbling diesel truck or a grinding blender, above the threshold at which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends wearing some sort of ear protection. A gas-powered leaf blower isn’t just obnoxious, it’s damaging to public health—for all of us, but especially for kids with asthma, or night-shift workers trying to get some sleep.

“This is a public health situation,” City Councilwoman Paula Blackmon said Tuesday at a committee briefing. “When you wake up at 3 o’clock and your son can’t breathe, it’s a public health situation.”

Dallas is considering new regulations for gas-powered leaf blowers. The city has done this before, in 2019, with not much to show for it. What’s changed? Dallas now has an environmental commission, which will spend much of next year working on a plan for noisy, polluting lawn equipment. A climate action plan adopted last year calls for dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in Dallas. And city officials recognize that to hit those climate goals, “we can’t nibble around the edges,” Blackmon says.

What hasn’t changed? Professional landscapers still aren’t crazy about electric alternatives, which are more cumbersome and less efficient than gas-powered equipment. There’s time, hassle, and expense involved in toting around battery packs to recharge electric leaf blowers. Landscape workers—many of them Hispanic, making on average a little more than $14 an hour—are at extra risk from the toxic hazards of operating gas-powered lawn equipment. But they’re also wary of fundamental changes to an established business model that depends on speed and volume.

“I just believe in my heart that if we’re going to really make change, we’re going to have to make some hard decisions,” Blackmon says.

Some cities have gone in for full or partial bans on gas-powered lawn equipment, offering exchange programs, incentives, and rebates to ease the transition for professional landscaping crews. California is banning the sale of all gas mowers and blowers by 2024. Houston and San Antonio have taken a more modest approach, adapting their noise ordinances to limit when and where gas-powered lawn equipment can be used. (Enforcing a noise ordinance against “blow and go” operations would be a particular challenge, city staffers said.)

It’s unclear just how far Dallas is willing to go, but Blackmon described what’s happening now as the “first conversation” in a process that could lead to the end of two-stroke gasoline engines in lawn equipment in Dallas: gas-powered lawnmowers could be next up.

City Council members acknowledged that there will be resistance to any strong measures limiting gas-powered lawn equipment. Councilwoman Jaynie Schultz suggested that a “culture shift” was necessary. It’s important for the city to educate residents on the hazards of gas-powered lawn equipment, and to make clear that the “damage outweighs the convenience,” Schultz said.

There’s a parallel here with Dallas’ previous adoption of a “pooper-scooper” ordinance, Blackmon said. Pet owners in North Texas didn’t always feel an obligation to pick up dog poop. Some still don’t. But, gradually, people came to accept that sharing a city with other people means making some trade-offs for the sake of the public good. It means stooping down and picking up the dog poop.

“You do it because it is the right thing to do,” Blackmon said.

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