Air pollution drama at my home

So there I was on that sunny summer afternoon, just getting started with our Sierra Club Canada project, “Breathe Easy,” to measure air pollution all across Ottawa. I was working from home, all the windows open, when suddenly there's a cacophony of clattering noise starting up somewhere in the neighbourhood and a real stinky smell wafting into the yard and in through my windows. I investigate to find that a local hedge trimming company has unleashed a team of three ardent cutters on my adjacent neighbour's back yard. I close up all my windows and whip over to see what's going on. The decent enough guys, just workers, not the company owner, tell me that they are there for about another hour to trim the hedge and that they have a schedule to meet and no intention of stopping.

The irony was not escaping me.

I call that company owner to be told that his equipment has been approved in California and that he's telling his guys to go ahead. I tell him that the smell is horrible and that he should do something to stop it. He tells me, using more gentle words than this, to shove off.

So I call Ottawa Public Health who put me onto someone at the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, only to find that MOE does not regulate such engines. In other words, in this province and likely in the whole of Canada, anything goes with gas-fuelled hedge trimmers, lawnmowers, leaf blowers, etc.

Of course, to add insult to injury, I did not have one of our Breathe Easy air quality monitors, known as Air Quality Eggs, to verify the actual level of pollutants that I and my close neighbours were breathing at that time. All the same, my own personal sensor, my nose, was telling me that the air quality (AQ) was very definitely not good. Not good at all.

Eventually the workers stopped, the smell dropped off, and life returned to normal. Well almost normal, as I did have a bit of a nasty taste in my mouth that could have been real or psychological.

There's more.

Another group of guys from the same company arrived the next morning to finish the job. By now I had my “Egg” in hand, ready to effectively catch these guys in the act and be able to show them on the Egg’s read out dial just how bad the air they and I were breathing. But guess what? No smell this time. Did the owner get them to use better, well-tuned cutters? I'll never know but the wind was up and the readings on the Egg were basically normal. PM2.5 in the 7-8 ug/m3 range (over 20 or so is a little dangerous).

The moment was gone to actually measure the AQ when it was at its worst. I did check out some interesting information online about these so called small off-road engines (SORE for short). It turns out that they are not regulated anywhere in Canada, but there is data showing that these 'SORE's' are pretty nasty machines. One source stated that one such SORE, a gas-fuelled lawn mower, in an hour could produce as much air pollution as 11 full sized cars driving for an hour straight. Which means the day before, I, my neighbours, and those hedge cutters were gulping down the equivalent air pollution that 11 cars would produce. Yecchh!

I can say from this and other experience that gas-fired lawn mowers, hedge trimmers, leaf blowers and snow blowers are generally really stinky and disturbing to daily life. I am sure that the long-term use of such machines, especially by those who use them continuously, has a serious negative impact on one's health. We will try to get more information on these ‘SOREs’ as part of our Breath Easy project. People need to know about this and maybe, just maybe, think of going electric, or battery-power, or good old human power, to cut their grass, and for other domestic chores.

- Jake Cole

Volunteer, Sierra Club Canada Foundation
breatheeasy@sierraclub.ca

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