Modern Pestilence: Leaf Blowers Generate Infuriating Noise, Toxic Gases and Hazardous Dust

Blasting out air at hurricane-force speeds, leaf blowers spread allergens, toxins, pollutants and pathogens into the air we breathe.​

The calm and quiet of suburban existence has always been interrupted by loud, dirty machines in the form of chainsaws, hedge trimmers, lawn mowers, and string trimmers. But none of the tools of modern landscaping inspires as much animus and contempt as the leaf blower, the four-season tool used by do-it-yourself groundskeepers and professional landscapers alike.

The mind-numbing roar of a typical gasoline-powered, two-stroke leaf blower, at 90 to 102 decibels (dB), is only a small part of the overall damage these machines do to a community. Blasting out air at hurricane-force speeds, leaf blowers disperse allergens, toxins, pollutants and pathogens into the air.​

The two-stroke engine is used in leaf blowers because it’s lightweight, inexpensive and relatively powerful. But this engine is an environmental nightmare. Because it doesn’t have a separate lubrication system, like an automobile, the gasoline is combined with oil and the entire mixture is burned.​

This makes the typical leaf blower engine notably inefficient; some 30% of the fuel and oil mixture does not thoroughly combust, which causes the engine to discharge an abundance of air toxins, such as carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides and hydrocarbons. Nitrous oxides make up more than 7% of the gases that cause global warming and factor in the creation of acid rain. Hydrocarbons are volatile organic compounds that are often carcinogenic and contribute to smog formation. Carbon monoxide is toxic to humans and animals in high concentrations and is part of the chemical mix that forms photochemical smog.​

Environmental scientists maintain that the emissions from a single leaf blower over a year’s time are the equivalent of running 80 automobiles 12,500 miles. Still, the two-stroke engine’s emissions may actually be less hazardous than the dust and other particulate matter a leaf blower stirs up.​

Leaf blowers don’t just blow away leaves and lawn clippings, their 180- to 200-mph air output blasts away topsoil, microbial life forms, animal waste, allergic fungi, spores, herbicides, pesticides, and even heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury and lead. This toxic cocktail of engine emissions and dust particulates can exacerbate allergies and asthma in children and adults, and aggravate acute pulmonary disorders such as COPD (chronic bronchitis and emphysema) and pulmonary fibrosis in adults and the elderly. Leaf blower pollutants are so bad the American Lung Association recommends that all individuals avoid them.​

And then there’s the noise pollution. A moderate decibel level, like playing music or having a conversation, is about 60 dB; the noise from a car passing 50 feet away is about 70 dB. But leaf blowers can generate four to eight times the noise of a passing car. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, that’s enough noise pollution to degrade the quality of life by interfering with communication, thinking and sleep. The EPA says such noise can reduce the accuracy of work and increase an individual’s level of aggravation, even hours after exposure.​

The high levels of exhaust, particulate and noise pollution have prompted dozens of municipalities across the U.S. to pass ordinances either restricting the use of leaf blowers or banning them altogether. Most restrictions are seasonal (mostly in the late spring and summer months), while other bans restrict the time of day or days of the week blowers can be used. Some cities, like Los Angeles and Aspen, ban the use of gas-powered leaf blowers altogether. Fines vary from as low as $50 to as high as $5,000, depending on the community.​

There's one more big flaw in terms of leaf blower function: Especially when used in the summer months to move grass clippings, leaf blowers don't really clean the area, they just move the mess offsite and onto the sidewalk, street, adjacent properties, and into storm drains and the air. So, it's a zero-sum game, giving the home or business owner a pristine driveway or lawn, while the dirt and debris has just been moved elsewhere in the neighborhood. That's not cleaning—it’s one residence making its mess the community’s problem.

Getting a Ban in Place

Still, getting a leaf-blower ban in place is not always easy. Case in point: the Village of Nyack, NY has been mulling over an ordinance for several years, spanning two mayoral administrations. In 2011, the village’s board sent the matter to an environmental committee comprised of some of the village’s residents, which has yet to return a final recommendation to the board.​

There has been some push-back against an ordinance from some businesses in Nyack, particularly the area’s landscapers, who claim that illicit companies using leaf blowers will steal their business if they are not permitted to use blowers. The landscapers also claim they would be unfairly punished for using their equipment, while loud tools such as jackhammers would not be banned or regulated. Some elderly and disabled residents, who have purchased electric leaf blowers to help them clear snow from their walkways during the winter, also worry what an all-out leaf-blower ban might mean to them.​

“Nyack has to worry about unintended consequences when considering an ordinance,” says Mayor Jennifer Laird White, noting that while the pace of imposing a leaf-blower ordinance might seem slow, the village wants to be thorough and thoughtful in its decision-making process.

But some residents of Nyack say a ban on leaf blowers can't come soon enough. Village resident Matthew Picardi likens the use of blowers on neighboring properties to torture. Picardi says landscapers use leaf blowers as early as 7am and as late as past sunset.​

“I have been blown in the face at close range multiple times while walking and biking, leading to coughing and difficulty breathing, and on one occasion nearly knocking me off of my bike,” he says.​

Picardi notes that landscapers are rarely mindful in their use of leaf blowers and have mixed their use with the application of liquid compounds used in gardening and lawn care.​

“Leaf blowers [are] being used alongside landscapers using chemical sprayers on lawns, potentially making herbicides and pesticides airborne,” he says.​

Mayor White says she is not a fan of leaf blowers, and thinks there's reason to believe they're potentially toxic, but says she's seen no definitive testing as to the hazards.​

“Unfortunately, this is not like climate change, where there's a wealth of proof to make your case,” she says. “I think, as a village, we've got to approach this from a quality of life aspect.”​

The Village of Nyack uses only electric leaf blowers, according to White, and “the department of public works is strongly discouraged from using them,” she says.​

Other residents of Nyack wonder whether it would be expensive to clean the village’s tree-lined riverfront park with rakes rather than leaf blowers, possibly raising their taxes. But that probably wouldn't be the case. In a report to the California Air Resources Board, the Los Angeles Department of Power and Water once pit a grandmother with a rake and a broom against a professional landscaper with electric and gas leaf blowers. In three test cycles, the grandmother cleaned the area faster than any of the battery-powered blowers and 80% as fast as the gas-powered leaf blowers. She also did a better job cleaning up the areas, says the report. When a landscaping company did its own tests, it found that it too could do the job faster using rakes.​

Health and Welfare Issue

Across the Hudson River from Nyack in Eastchester, NY, advocates for a leaf-blower ban got the medical establishment on their side. Every doctor affiliated with Mt. Sinai Children's Hospital's Environmental Health Center signed on to the proposed restrictions, stating:

"Leaf blowers pose multiple hazards to human health. Children are the most susceptible members of our population to these hazards because they breathe more air per pound of body weight per day than adults and thus inhale more of any pollutants that are thrown into the air by this equipment. Children's vulnerability to the health effects of this equipment is further magnified by the fact that they are passing through the stages of early development, and thus their lungs, ears, eyes, and other organ systems are inherently more sensitive to environmental hazards than the organs of adults."​

In other towns that have considered ordinances or bans, opponents have argued that banning the blowers would make landscaping difficult and excessively expensive. Failure to maintain lawns and gardens with leaf blowers, landscapers claim, could result in untidy homes and perhaps even falling property values. However, it hasn’t hurt Carmel and Beverly Hills, the first two California cities to ban the blowers back in the 1970s.​

A ban on leaf blowers certainly hasn’t hurt quality of life in Rye, NY, an affluent bedroom community on the New York/Connecticut border, and perhaps not its landscapers either. When the city was considering a trial summer ban on leaf blowers in 2008, landscapers swarmed city council meetings, saying it would hurt their businesses. But Greenwich Time, the newspaper of neighboring Greenwich, CT, reported that a year later, only one landscaper showed up to a council review of the seasonal ban. Rye now bans all gas-powered leaf blowers.​

Despite the leaf blower bans that are in place, some landscapers still use them. Some wait until the late afternoon, when code enforcers are not on duty. Others consider the fines they get to be just the cost of doing business, while others simply don't pay the fines. A video by actor and environmental activist Ed Begley Jr., released a few years back, showed that landscapers still use leaf blowers in Los Angeles despite a ban.

Nyack's Mayor White also worries that a regulation in her village might not solve the problem. "I don't know how we can enforce it," she says, noting that violators might be finished by the time authorities show up for a non-emergency complaint.

Writing this article was difficult, as the writer suffers from ragweed allergies, which were aggravated by three...now four...leaf blowers used nearby. And then there's the noise....

Cliff Weathers is a former senior editor at AlterNet and served as a deputy editor at Consumer Reports. Twitter @cliffweathers.

 

Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
[x]
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Activism
Drugs
Economy
Education
Environment
Food
Media
World