Blowing the Whistle on Leaf Blowers

For some, they’re a time-saving godsend for the perfectly coiffed lawn. For others, they are an ear-piercing, fume-belching abomination. Welcome to the suburban battlefield.

When choosing sides, keep in mind that the omnipresent leaf blowers create many hazards for our health, soil, and watershed. For starters, a leaf blower  blows much more than leaves. Gardeners wielding these machines also blast away topsoil and kick up pesticides, fungi, chemicals, fertilizers, spores  (sometimes diseased), weed seeds and street dirt that can contain oil and gasoline. All these emissions can worsen asthma, allergies and other chronic lung ailments. The American Lung Association is on record supporting bans of leaf blowers. Too often, these devices just move leaves and grass clippings around, sending them to the street and clogging storm drains and sending the debris into nearby streams. In addition, those leaves could be providing a natural mulch for trees, shrubs and flower beds.

The typical gas-fired leaf blower has a two-stroke engine that makes it light, relatively inexpensive, simple to run, and powerful—and a pollution machine. Because they lack a separate lubrication system, leaf blowers burn fuel and oil. The combustion is inefficient–about 30 percent is not thoroughly   combusted–so the engine spews carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides (NOx), and hydrocarbons. Nitrous oxides produce acid rain, hydrocarbons are carcinogens, and both produce smog. In fact, in a 2011 test comparing leaf blowers with a Ford Raptor highperformance pickup truck, the car-buyer site Edmunds.com found that “the hydrocarbon emissions from a half-hour of yard work with the two-stroke leaf blower are about the same as a 3,900-mile drive from Texas to Alaska in a Raptor.” The twostroke leaf blower produced 23 times as much carbon monoxide and nearly 300 times more hydrocarbons than the Raptor. A fourstroke leaf blower was somewhat less polluting, producing seven times as much nitrogen oxide and 13.5 times more carbon monoxide than the Ford truck.

The noise level of gas-fired leaf blowers is about 105 decibels for the operator and about 75 decibels for someone 50 feet away. That’s much more than enough to disturb conversation as well as local wildlife, particularly birds. Prolonged exposure to 85 decibels can cause gradual hearing loss in humans.

A few tests have indicated that leaf blowers weren’t even as fast or efficient as a broom and rake. In 1998, a Los Angeles city task force pitted a woman in her late 50s armed with rakes and brooms against burly gardeners with gas-powered and battery powered leaf blowers. The rake and broom were faster than the
battery-powered leaf blower, nearly as fast as the gas-powered, and cleaned some areas better than both.

This fall, step away from the leaf blower. Instead:

• Rake leaves onto your garden beds to use as mulch for the winter.
• If you have too many leaves, rake them into your green food scrap recycling bin, other open bin or large paper bags and place them at the curb, where they can be hauled off and turned into compost.
• Avoid putting the leaves in plastic bags. Leaves sealed hermetically in plastic bags can’t break down to become soil–and the plastic can ruin compost.
• Don’t dispose of leaves in Columbia Association open space.
• Cherry trees in our area have shot hole fungus. These and other diseased leaves should be bagged and put out with the trash. They should not be used as mulch in gardens.

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