Those Nasty Leaf Blowers

Hate the leaf blowers? You’re not alone. Many California towns and cities have banned these noisy, polluting machines.

Carmel was the first, in 1975. Now, more than 100 California cities and 400 other cities, towns and municipalities nationwide have banned or restricted leaf blowers. The California EPA, the American Lung Association and the World Health Organization are among the many groups that condemn the use of leaf blowers because the extreme noise and air pollution caused by these machines are hazardous to human health.

Hundreds of cities have returned to the traditional rake and broom, with bags and trash containers, easily banishing this horrible machine from its neighborhoods. Few inventions in human history are as obnoxious as the leaf blower.

How it Started

It all started with a machine for blowing pesticides onto fruit trees in Japan. By simply removing the pesticide canister, this machine became a tool for chasing garden debris. It wasn’t long before American manufacturers spotted an opportunity. The new American blowers were first hailed as an environmental boon when Los Angeles municipal workers began using them in place of the traditional thumb stream from a hose to clean sidewalks and driveways.

The new blowers consisted of a simple two-stroke engine that burned a mixture of gas and oil. Their incomplete combustion and lack of any noise muffler made these machines dirty and loud. Carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides and carcinogenic hydrocarbons spewed from the machines’ nozzles into the air.

A later, cleaner alternative was a four-stroke engine which failed to sell because it was more expensive and less powerful. But people loved the cheap, powerful blower and soon everyone had to have one.

Homeowners, landscapers and their armies of workers fanned out all over the country, spewing strong pollutants and kicking up noxious mixtures of dirt from the ground.

With a muzzle velocity of 150 miles per hour (a wind speed matched only by a hurricane or a tornado), one leaf blower generates as much pollution in one hour as a car driven for 100 miles, according to the Los Angeles chapter of the American Lung Association.

What’s Left After the Leaves Are Blown Away

An airborne mixture of fine particles from unburned fuel, fungi, molds and pollens, pulverized bugs and animal feces hangs in the air for up to four days. The California Air Resources Board reported that fine particles in the air result in 9,000 premature deaths a year in California. At-risk groups include the elderly with cardio-pulmonary problems, people who exercise outdoors, and infants.

Even many landscape professionals agree that stripping a garden of its natural layer of mulch is bad for the plants, diminishing their natural beauty and increasing the need for water, a scarce resource in California. The blowers blast the ground clear of leaf litter, a material that’s beneficial for the soil. In 1990, the city of Claremont stopped using blowers in the maintenance of city property without a net increase in labor hours.

Leaf blower noise is uniquely irritating. For landscape workers, the hazards can be life threatening. The sound from one leaf blower measures 70 to 75 decibels at 50 feet and can reach 90 to 100 decibels at the operator’s ear, according to the World Health Organization. A person inside can be exposed to 100 decibels of noise even with closed windows. Excessive noise is associated with increased blood pressure, headaches, ringing ears, loss of sleep and a lower tolerance for frustration.

Leaf blowers emit compounds that react with sunlight to create ground-level ozone, a key component of smog that can cause respiratory problems. New evidence shows that a relationship between short-term exposure to ozone and mortality in older adults has been mounting, especially among people who are active outdoors.

New findings demonstrate that the road dust that the blowers kick up into the air can remain for days. It’s a toxic mix of endotoxins, mold, and organic carbon compounds. Leaf blowing is not private conduct, because when someone kicks up dust, he extends risk beyond his property line. In some communities, neighbors have to hear multiple blowers at one location.

What Can We Do?

What can homeowners do to protect their own and their community’s health? They can learn what other communities have accomplished and pressure their local governments to take action. They can learn how and where their local government manages its yard waste. They can investigate simple alternatives like hand-powered lawn sweepers that have an attached catch basin. These take even less energy than the rake-and-broom method, but are equally effective. They are quiet and pollution free. Most can be used on both concrete and grass. Leaves can be moved almost as quickly with a rake, lifting less dust into the air.

What can local governments do? They can defend and protect a citizen’s right to quiet enjoyment of their property, especially in the summer and early fall. They can defend a person’s right to protect his or her ears and mental health. And broadly defined, they can do their essential job of defining and enforcing property rights. They can and should ensure that disposal of all kinds of yard waste be sustainably managed, not burned or left to rot and release methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

A good example is the city of Seattle. Homeowners collect yard waste in dedicated bins owned by the city. Trucks take it to sites where it is properly managed. The city then sells the resulting mulch to anyone who wants it at a low price. People can do this. They can banish leaf blowers and return their neighborhoods to normal.

Further Reading and Resources

For the best source of information on this subject, Google References on the Adverse Health Effects of Leaf Blowers 23 April 2014. For California Cities with bans,  For a comprehensive list of cities with bans:  For Information on Leaf Blowers

This article first appeared in the Rossmoor News on October 21, 2015, author, Susan Clark.

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