NOTE: The editorial on this page is a response to Yamiche Alcindor’s important story in The New York Times, In Sweltering South, Climate Change Is Now a Workplace Hazard, published August 3, 2017.
For quick context to my response below, here are some of the most compelling passages from Ms. Alcindor’s NYT piece:
- “Adolfo Guerra, a landscaper … remembers panicking as his co-worker vomited and convulsed after hours of mowing lawns in stifling heat. … for Mr. Guerra, 24, who spends nine hours a day six days a week doing yard work, the episode was a reminder of the dangers that exist for outdoor workers as the planet warms. “I think about the climate every day,” Mr. Guerra said, “because every day we work, and every day it feels like it’s getting hotter.”
- “ … environmental organizations … have… been more focused on struggling animals than poor humans, who have been disproportionately harmed by increasing temperatures … They are still pushing out the polar bear as the icon for climate change. The icon should be a kid who is suffering from the negative impacts of climate change and increased air pollution, …”
— Professor Robert D. Bullard at Texas Southern University
- “Sometimes I can actually taste chemicals on my lips and I think to myself, ‘Maybe this is the price you pay for working and doing some of this stuff. … a lot of these children have asthma and are sick.”
- “You can’t have freedom and justice in this country if you can’t breathe your air, if you can’t open your window because of the toxic smells. It may not be a billy club that is hitting you or a dog that is tearing your skin … but it is violence to the body.”
— NJ Senator Cory Booker
CAUSE AND EFFECT:
AN UNDERSTANDING GAP
by Luke Massman-Johnson
Communications Director at American Green Zone Alliance
August 7, 2017
Yamiche Alcindor has written a dramatic and impactful story on an important issue: the under-reported effects that climate change is having on the health of lawn care workers. These workers are one group of many from underserved communities that will be impacted sooner and harder by climate change than will most of us. It’s a heart-wrenching but common environmental injustice that they will also have among the least leverage to affect change in their industry, community, politics, and the economy.
Ms. Alcindor does a great job focusing on the human story, and she doesn’t attempt to address the causes of climate change, which is fair enough. That said, there is a glaring environmental irony in this article that deserves to be part of the discussion. Just look at the photos accompanying Yamiche’s article. Look at what tools these guys use to do their grounds maintenance: gas mowers and gas leaf blowers, gas line trimmers, edgers and hedgers, and gas chainsaws! As does virtually every other lawn crew across the country.
These noisy, fossil-fuel-powered engines are some of the most polluting and least regulated machinery still allowed in modern society. And yet, the workers make no connection between the airborne pollutants from their own gas tools and the life-threatening effects they’re experiencing. Neither does the author. In fact, the vomiting and seizures mentioned in the opening paragraph are almost certainly the results of breathing high volumes of gas emissions, in addition to heat stress, rather than from just climate-change-increased heat alone.
Emissions from small 2-stroke and 4-stroke engines are significant and dangerous. As much as 25% of the machine’s liquid gas and oil are exhausted as microscopic unburned particulates. No sane person would ever drink liquid gas or oil, but these workers are breathing aerosolized volumes of exactly that. Mixed into their noxious exhaust cloud are also toxic VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and carcinogenic HCs (hydrocarbons) such as benzene, formaldehyde, and nitrogen oxides.
So for hours every work day, lawn crews inhale this poisonous smog deep into their lungs and straight into their bloodstreams. Headaches, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting are just some of the predictable immediate effects, along with ringing ears, vibration syndrome, eye, nose, and throat irritation, and asthma. The cumulative build-up in workers’ bodies over years can include tinnitus, permanent hearing loss, hypertension, bronchitis, COPD, lung disease, cancer, and death.
THE TEN WORST PROBLEMS WITH GAS EQUIPMENT
But we mustn’t blame the workers: they are the most vulnerable of all and no one suffers more. Gas leaf blowers are understandably vilified in hundreds of communities across the country for their grating noise pollution. And the workers whose ears are within inches of these obnoxious engines are usually vilified along with them.
Well-intentioned citizen and environmental groups often rally for brooms and rakes, but it is the nation-wide demand for large manicured yards that has required almost every full-time grounds crew to rely on the raw power of gas. There is simply no practical and efficient way to remove leaves from dense bushes and delicate flower beds, or to dust debris off landscaped terraces and gravel patios, property after property, six days a week, besides air pressure.
SO WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?
Lawn crews are largely made up of laborers who don’t own the company tools, and who are in no position to swap them out for better ones. Crew managers and supervisors, who are in charge of equipment purchasing, don’t know much about the latest commercial-grade battery-electric alternatives. Or they assume they’re too expensive. Or underpowered. Or can’t run long enough for a full day’s work.
They could all benefit greatly from an updated understanding. The evolution of electric lawn and garden machinery in the last five years has been nothing short of transformative. Battery chemistry and technology from laptops, power tools, solar panels and electric cars have translated directly to the electric OPE (outdoor power equipment) industry. Power, performance, run times, and commercial capacity of battery electric lawn equipment has been dramatically ramped up. This includes commercial-scale 60” zero-turn riding lawn mowers and even the meticulous 5-gang reel mowers required by golf courses and high-end sports fields.
TEN WAYS BATTERY ELECTRIC EQUIPMENT ADDRESSES THE WORST PROBLEMS OF GAS
The benefits of electric tools over gas are overwhelming: 40% – 70% quieter, with zero emissions to create health and environmental problems. And because they don’t require gas or oil, spark plugs, filters, belts and hoses, let alone much maintenance, the hourly cost of operations is extraordinarily lower than for gas machines. So even though the initial price will certainly be higher for battery tools and the additional batteries required to run them all day, commercial crews can achieve a healthy ROI and significant profitability in one to three years, sometimes less.
With the health of workers, quiet communities, clean local air, and the sustainability of our planet as dividends of zero-emission groundskeeping, there’s almost nothing left to discuss about gas equipment except how fast society can rid itself of them. The barrier to this necessary and achievable transformation isn’t technology or money or innovation — those are all in place. This is a gap of knowledge and understanding. And frankly, as with most important cultural shifts, also a gap of compassion, alignment, and resolve.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics documents almost a million workers in landscaping and groundskeeping across the US. Here in LA we have an estimated 50,000. We can assume there are more than a few undocumented as well. Can we continue to ignore the cruel irony, that in the name of our beautiful green lawns these hard-working million lug gas equipment on their backs, breathe their own poisoned air, and spew greenhouse gasses that exacerbate the increasingly dangerous heat?
Yamiche’s story reveals a huge elephant in the room: a rarely-discussed set of environmental justice issues that bridge workers’ rights and health with community well-being, local air quality, and climate change.
A clean, quieter solution is at hand in electric lawn care. We just need to let people know it’s here for the taking.
Thank you for your great article, Yamiche.
American Green Zone Alliance