Close to Home: Time to ban horribly polluting gas leaf blowers

Leaf blowers damage the hearing of those who use them and people nearby.|

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

I was outside with our cats on a recent sunny morning, enjoying our neighbor’s classical quintet as they rehearsed Mozart’s Divertimento No. 14, until leaf blowers down the street roared to life, drowning out the music.

Here in the North Bay, we are fortunate to live in one of the most beautiful places on earth. Yet the tranquillity so many of us crave is shattered daily by gas-powered leaf blowers. At noise levels that can exceed 100 decibels, leaf blowers damage the hearing of those who use them and of people nearby.

Michael Shapiro
Michael Shapiro

It gets worse: Leaf blower noise trigger headaches; the fumes can cause asthmatic reactions; and the sound makes it harder for blind people to get around safely, as they rely on hearing cars and other potential hazards.

Those most at risk are the gardeners who work for commercial companies. Many are immigrants who don’t have other employment options; they work, day in and day out, with leaf blowers just inches from their lungs and ears.

A California Air Resources Board exposure study found these workers could “potentially double their current cancer risk from carcinogens emitted by gas equipment.”

In a time of climate crisis, it’s unconscionable that we allow the use of gas-powered leaf blowers. As of 2024, California will ban the sale of gas-powered leaf blowers, but there will be no limit on their use.

While car and truck engines have become far more efficient, wrote James Fallows in the Atlantic, a leaf blower’s two-stroke engine “sloshes together a mixture of gasoline and oil in the combustion chamber and then spews out as much as one-third of that fuel as an unburned aerosol.”

The damage inflicted by leaf blowers goes beyond physical.

“The soul experiences mechanical sounds as an assault,” said retired psychotherapist Larry Robinson. “The soul longs for quiet. I don’t mean merely the absence of sound, but rather the context in which to experience and process subtle audial cues that connect us in a deeper way to both inner and outer worlds.”

The noise from gas leaf blowers is “especially painful to the soul because it is of a frequency that is almost impossible for the human brain to ignore,” said Robinson, a former mayor of Sebastopol. “It overwhelms all other sounds, including music, conversation, the wind through the trees or the songs of birds. Absent these, our human lives are diminished.”

CARB issued a report saying gas-powered leaf blowers and lawn mowers statewide produce more ozone pollution than California’s 15 million cars. Leaf blowers also propel dust into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change.

Given the global emergency, leaf blowers and other small off-road engines (aptly called SOREs) are “low-hanging fruit in our collective efforts to dramatically cut climate pollution,” says Ellie Cohen, CEO of the Climate Center, a policy-action group based in Santa Rosa.

She notes SOREs can be easily replaced by electric yard equipment, whose performance has improved dramatically during the past few years. “As more people experience the electric versions, it is likely the old gas versions will rapidly phase out,” she said, not just in California but around the country.

Some people may think there’s nothing we can do, but there’s precedent for acting for the good of the community. Palo Alto banned gas-powered blowers more than a decade ago and recently began enforcing the ban.

More than 100 U.S. cities have banned gas blowers. Perhaps most notably, on Jan. 1, 2022, using gas blowers became illegal in Washington, D.C.

“It’s been a dramatic change,” Fallows told me. Since the ban took effect, he has heard the roar of gas blowers just a “handful” of times. “You can hear the silence. What had been an unnecessary and almost omnipresent intrusion in people’s lives is not there anymore.”

Not everyone goes to bed at 11 p.m. and gets up at 7 a.m., when gardeners in many cities are allowed to start their engines. All over the North Bay we have nurses, firefighters, doctors, police officers and grocery workers who work the night shift.

It’s a nightmare for them to try to get some sleep during the day when leaf blowers are howling. The noise is so penetrating that even high-tech earplugs are no match, so they lose sleep, which is essential to good health.

What can we do now? We can start by asking our gardeners not to use leaf blowers, or at least to eschew gas-powered leaf blowers. (Electric leaf blowers are better for the climate but still loud enough to damage hearing and trigger stress.)

Ultimately, with community support, we could petition our city councils to ban gas leaf blowers or create leaf blower-free zones.

There may be noise that’s louder, like the whine of chainsaws or the concussions of a jackhammer. Yet those tools are doing something necessary; leaf blower use isn’t required. Nothing terrible happens when leaves remain on the ground. Rather, there are benefits; they fertilize the soil.

If leaves need to be cleaned up, there’s an implement, a quiet alternative, that works just fine. We use rakes on our property and have asked our gardener to refrain from using leaf blowers, so he gladly uses rakes too. He gets the job done just as quickly.

Curtailing leaf blowers would make our neighborhoods quieter and keep our local air cleaner while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Once again, our communities could be places where we could hear ourselves think, listen to birds sing and enjoy the sound of our neighbors playing Mozart.

Michael Shapiro, a former Press Democrat copy editor, writes for magazines including Sierra and National Geographic. He’s author of “The Creative Spark” and lives in Petaluma.

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The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

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