by Alan Gregory

Alan Gregory’s Conservation News

May 13, 2009

My latest newspaper outdoors column:

People concerned about big environmental issues like air and water pollution, fish and wildlife habitat loss and fragmentation, and our nation’s dependence on foreign oil (a fossil fuel) can look this summer to the lowly lawn mower for some answers.

We seemingly went from snow blowers to lawn mowers in less than a month this spring.

Both the wintertime mechanized tool and its summer twin look harmless sitting in the garage or storage shed out back. But theyre not. They have big environmental impacts, especially, given its frequency of use, the lawn mower.

Traditional gasoline-fed lawn mowers are responsible for 5 percent of the nation’s air pollution, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In 2007, the EPA, it’s worth noting, created emission standards for small engines like those that power mowers, leaf blowers and lawn trimmers.

Remember this the next time you power up your mower: One gas mower running for an hour emits the same amount of pollutants as eight new cars motoring about at 55 mph for the same amount of time, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Add noise pollution to the list of hazards machines belch at us daily.

Here’s how the EPA defines noise:

The traditional definition of noise is unwanted or disturbing sound. Sound becomes unwanted when it either interferes with normal activities such as sleeping, conversation, or disrupts or diminishes ones quality of life. The fact that you cant see, taste or smell it may help explain why it has not received as much attention as other types of pollution, such as air pollution, or water pollution. The air around us is constantly filled with sounds, yet most of us would probably not say we are surrounded by noise. Though for some, the persistent and escalating sources of sound can often be considered an annoyance. This annoyance can have major consequences, primarily to ones overall health.

I have been around some major sources of noise, especially during my career in the U.S. Air Force. I learned quickly why the aircraft maintenance guys always wore ear protectors while working on flight lines or moving about aircraft parked in hangars. During a routine periodic physical examination one year, an Air Force physician asked if I was wearing a hearing protector while doing yard work at home. No, I answered. Well, youd better start, he said. It seems my ability to discern high-frequency sounds had dropped off a bit. Noise-dampening ear muffs have been clipped to our mower since.

The typical urban lawn is a biological desert, home to assorted non-native, invasive species like dandelions and garlic mustard. And the average carpet of turf is a big consumer of gasoline, according to the EPA. Americans burn 800 million gallons of gas each year clipping their grassy yards, the EPA notes.

But the gasoline that doesnt make it into the fuel tank is also an environmental concern. Again according to the EPA, 17 million gallons of fuel are spilled each year while refueling lawn and garden equipment more than all the oils pilled by the Exxon Valdez in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989. Spilled fuel evaporates into the atmosphere, and volatile organic compounds spit out by small engines make smog-forming ozone when cooked by sunlight and summer heat.

Noise is measured in decibels, the higher the number, the greater the level of noise.

As I type, it’s relatively quiet outside the window, save for an American robin’s languid song. But a delivery truck just drove past, greatly accelerating the level of noise for half a minute.

The Census Bureau reports that noise is Americans’ top complaint about their neighborhoods, and the major reason they wish to move. Ninety percent of calls to New York City’s quality of life hotline concern noise, reports the non-profit organization Noise Free America.
According to the group’s Web site (, Noise Free America is dedicated to fighting noise pollution, especially from boom cars, leaf blowers and motorcycles.

More from the EPA: Noise pollution adversely affects the lives of millions of people. Studies have shown that there are direct links between noise and health. Problems related to noise include stress-related illnesses, high blood pressure, speech interference, hearing loss, sleep disruption, and lost productivity. Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) is the most common and often discussed health effect, but research has shown that exposure to constant or high levels of noise can cause countless adverse health effects.

To learn how to protect ones self from harmful noise, the EPA suggests visiting the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse at

Recently published was the book “One Square Inch of Silence,” by Gordon Hempton and John Grossmann. It’s subtitled,: “One Man’s Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World.” Hempton’s “One Square Inch” is inside the boundary of Olympic National Park in Washington State.