At this May’s Town Meeting, residents will have the chance to vote on whether or not the use of leafblowers should be banned here in Marblehead.
The proposal may seem straightforward enough, but some residents argue that leaf blowers pose serious health risks that voters need to consider.
Article 36 on the warrant is sponsored by resident Christopher Bergonzi, and is backed by several concerned residents and organizations. The Marblehead Winter Garden Club, Marblehead Neck Association and HealthLink will be sponsoring an educational forum on Tuesday, March 27, 7 p.m., at Abbot Public Library to inform residents about the sort of risks many believe leaf blowers pose. Thepurpose of the forum is not to express support for the article, but rather to allow voters to make an educated decision at Town Meeting, according to organizers.
Pat Beckett, chairwoman of the Environmental Committee of the Winter Garden Club and cofounder of the Marblehead Pesticide Awareness Committee, will present at the meeting. Beckett helped lead the campaign that established the policy prohibiting the use of pesticides on all town land.
"A lot of the choices we make in maintaining our garden have an environmental impact," said Beckett."Gardeners have a real role to play in helping the environment, and it also has a lot to do with good horticulture. … Leaf blowing and mulching are two of the practices that have gotten out of hand."
Bergonzi may also speak at the forum, and Beckett said that although his article calls to ban all leaf-blower use, there article could be modified even from the floor of Town Meeting to propose a partialban, if such an approach is preferred. A partial ban could include restrictions, say, in the warmermonths like May to September or June through October, or limiting the number of machines that canbe used in an area at one time.
Other Massachusetts towns that have adopted similar bans include Brookline, Arlington andCambridge. And more than 400 communities nationwide have put in place some sort of regulation,Beckett noted.
The problem with partial bans, according to Board of Health Director Andrew Petty, is that they are not easy to enforce.
"If there was an all-out ban, that’s something I can enforce. If it’s coming down to a noise violation,that would be very hard enforcement," he said.
In terms of whether it’s a public safety issue, Petty would not take a stance either way. He said that itreally depends on factors like the proximity to the leaf blower and whether decibels levels were high enough to constitute noise pollution. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency,noise levels over 75 decibels can cause hearing loss and are harmful to human health.
"There are guidelines, as part of Mass. General Law, on noise as a nuisance and how it affects public health," he said. "If it falls into those then it would affect public law. But that’s the tricky part; the sound needs to go above certain decibels [to be considered a violation], and you have to measure that and I couldn’t do that every time there’s a leaf blower."
But Beckett insists that the health concerns are apparent, and very real. She said there are three major issues: that the machines blow dangerous particulate matter into the air, which stays suspended for several hours; that they generate debilitating levels of noise; and that their gas-powered engines pollute the air.
Some of the particulate matter that is released into the air, she said, includes lead, organic carbon, mold, heavy metals, pollen,pesticides and dog feces, to name a few.
"The latest science is very concerned about these particulates and how they react with other things already in the area," said Beckett."They also get deep into your lung tissue."
But Petty said that certain things must be demonstrated in order for a violation to have occurred, like high decibel readings and exposure rates.
And as far as the other towns that have banned leaf blower use, Petty thinks that the bans were supported more so because the machines are annoying and unpleasant during the summer months, when windows are open, not because they necessarily demonstrated a health problem.
Beckett believes the adverse effects go beyond just human health. She argues that leaf blowers are detrimental to gardens and lawns.
"What are people paying for?" she asked rhetorically. "It blows onto shrubs, trees and lawns hurricane-force winds, over 100 mph.That’s so damaging to plant life, and it destroys insect life and micro life. … Fifty years ago there were leaves, 40 years ago. People did hire people to come, but they used rakes and brooms. Now they’re using leaf blowers not even when there are leaves on the ground. It’s horticulturally wrong and extremely intrusive."
Now that spring is approaching, Beckett feels there’s no better time to tackle this problem. She said she is encouraged by the number of people who have expressed concern and knowledge on the subject. But she still feels the town as a whole is behind on the issue.
"Marblehead was really a pioneer about pesticide awareness and organized management, but we’re not being pioneers on this issue,"she said. "There are a lot of towns that have already initiated bans or limitations. Marblehead isn’t reinventing the wheel here by looking at this issue from a health perspective."