In this brief, nervous calm that separates the riotous invasion of the nation’s Capitol from the inauguration of a new president and impeachment trial of the old, I need a break from the all-consuming passions of national politics.
Indulge me in what I hope will become an issue of local politics. The matter has roots in our tree-shaded neighborhoods, but its impact branches out to the nation and beyond.
I’m talking about leaves, which provide a great benefit. I live on a street that is lined with majestic red oaks more than a half-century old. They turn the street into an elegant tunnel and cast the sidewalks into glorious shade in the summer months. Clever Mother Nature has red oaks shed their leaves in winter, letting the warming sunshine through when it is welcome.
But this leads to a problem. Nature sees leaves as composting material, nutrients for the soil as well as moisture-preserving blankets for the earth. Human urbanites and suburbanites, unfortunately, see leaves as litter on the landscape. The lawns must be liberated!
This was not a problem in my youth, when a rake was the weapon of choice. Now rakes are a quaint anachronism, slingshots in an age of industrialized war. Today, at least in affluent neighborhoods, leaves are battled by mercenaries armed with gasoline-fueled blowers, high-powered backpack models with the force of a tornado. (Not an exaggeration. Heavy-duty backpack blowers produce winds of 200 mph. F3 severe tornadoes feature winds of 158-206 mph.)
I am surrounded by wonderful neighbors, amiable and generous souls and good citizens all. I think they must be at work when their yard warriors come for, among them, at least two hours a day at least three days a week. I also think they are unaware of the harm that lawn care equipment can cause.
I work from home in an office at the back of a modern, well-sealed house. Even when the only assault is coming from across the street, the noise drowns out normal sounds. When I do a phone interview, I have to wear earphones.
This is not a seasonal problem. Our neighborhood has not only red oaks that have been shedding for weeks, but live oaks that will drop many of their leaves in the spring, cedar elms that will shed in the fall, and other varieties.
I don’t want to come off as a cranky old man, although I must admit that the intrusion on my peace does make me dangerously cranky. But I am not alone. In cities around the nation, the issue of gasoline leaf blowers has led to citizen movements. More than 100 cities have either banned or regulated their use. Next Jan. 1, they will be banned in Washington, D.C. The number of people homebound due to the pandemic is likely increasing the agitation.
The noisy, gas-powered leaf blowers are more than just an annoyance but a matter of public health and climate impact.
I have logged the decibels with two different sound meters. They have regularly exceeded the city ordinance’s daytime limit of 80 decibels measured from my yard. Backpack heavy-duty blowers produce noise levels as high as 112 decibels. Measured from 800 feet away they have been recorded at above 55 decibels, which is considered harmful by the World Health Organization. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report says they can help cause permanent hearing loss.
As bad as the noise level are the dynamics of the noise. Some battery-powered leaf blowers can produce the same decibel levels as gas-powered ones, but they don’t reach into the same low-frequency ranges. These are the bass sounds that cut through concrete walls and noise-protection gear. Higher-frequency sounds don’t travel nearly as far nor penetrate as powerfully. Hearing loss is a real danger, especially for lawn care workers, many of whom don’t wear protection.
If industrial leaf blowers a serious health risk, they are spectacularly efficient as a polluter. Their primitive two-cycle engines mix oil and gas together so ineffectively that about a third doesn’t combust, spewing into the air compounds linked to cancers, heart disease, and asthma.
Add to that the fine particles blown into the air by their torrential winds, and you don’t want your kids playing outside when the neighbor’s lawns are being groomed. A friend in my neighborhood says she must close all the windows on one side of the house on blower day to ward off a film of dust. The dust stays out, if not the dental-drill-level noise annoyance.
Then there is the impact of these machines on climate change. The term mind-blowing is not an exaggeration. A serious study of greenhouse gases they emit compared a mid-level gas blower with a 2011 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor Crew Cab, one of America’s most muscle-bound pickups. You can read the study, entertainingly written up in detail for Edmunds Automotive here. It found that in a half-hour, the leaf blower emits as much hydrocarbon as the truck would produce on a trip from North Texas to Anchorage, Alaska – 3,887 miles.
In 2017 the California Air Resources Board predicted that by today, gasoline blowers could blow into the air more ozone pollution than all the state’s cars combined. Admittedly, California has the toughest auto-emission regulations in the nation, but it also has the most cities banning or regulating leaf blowers.
So what should be done? The obvious solution is to ban two-cycle gasoline blowers. Replacements are available. Power tool companies such as Stihl and Milwaukee make muscular blowers powered by batteries. There is, of course, a catch. They are more expensive than the gas blowers. On the other hand, their fuel and maintenance costs are less.
Still, most lawn care companies are small businesses paying low wages and operating on small margins. As part of its climate change initiative, the city should explore the costs and benefits of a program of grants or low-interest loans to assist companies in the conversion to batteries.
That would probably require a major push from neighborhood organizations. If you like the idea, provide your neighborhood leaders with a copy of James Fallow’s excellent article on the issue in The Atlantic. It includes not only much of the scientific data I relied on for this piece, but also the road map he and others used to win the Washington, D.C., battle over the blowers.