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Leaf Blowers: Stirring Up a Mess
by Jane Dale Owen

Although certainly a conspicuous issue in many U.S. localities, use of leaf blowers has been the subject of particularly intense debate and rulemaking in the State of California. As many as 44 California cities have already enacted bans, laws and regulations regarding leaf blower use.

Why all the concern over a modest-sized, hand held piece of machinery? Well, these devices have become notorious for noisily stirring up dangerous dust including airborne feces, allergens, molds, and pollens. All of these pollutants aggravate allergy and asthma problems. One study conducted by the American Lung Association examined types of materials or toxins found in street dust. Found among the particulates examined were traces of arsenic, cadmium, chromium, nickel, and mercury.

The Los Angeles chapter of the American Lung Association has produced research to illustrate how leaf blowers generate as much pollution in one hour as a car driven for 100 miles produces.

At-Risk groups include the elderly with cardio-pulmonary problems; individuals who exercise outdoors, and young infants. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome has been associated with the negative effects and pollutants from leaf blowers according to a 1997 government study; “The Relationship between Selected Causes of Infant Mortality and Particulate Air Pollution in the United States.

Gasoline powered Leaf Blowers use two-stroke engines that are not only smoky, but induce pollution from the combustion of oil. Emissions from these machines include particulate materials, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and hydrocarbons (CO, NOx, and HC).

One of the most disturbing features of leaf blowers is the major contribution that they make to noise pollution. The Zero Air Pollution Los Angeles (ZAPLA) states that leaf blower use at one residence impacts eight to fourteen neighbors. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the noise induced by leaf blowers at 90 decibels exceeds the threshold of danger at 85 decibels and can seriously impair hearing. Leaf blowers are used mainly in residential areas where many types of residents are exposed to their pollutants and noise. This population includes homemakers, retirees, day sleepers, young toddlers, the ill or disabled, and pets.

Those at highest risk are the blower operators--gardeners and yard workers, who regularly omit wearing protective headphones and respiratory gear.

According to one manufacturer’s lobbyist, at a distance of fifty feet, the average blower measures 70-75 decibels. But the World Health Organization states that in order to have a healthy environment daytime noise levels should not exceed 55 decibels. A decibel level of 65 at 50 feet might still be 100 decibels or more next to a gardener’s ear. California is serious about enforcement of leaf blower regulations, with fines ranging from $50- $750. In Toronto, Canada the maximum fine is $5,000.

What does all of this chatter about noise add up to? Can noise make us sick? The answer is yes. Excessive noise pollution is associated with increased blood pressure, headaches, ringing ears, loss of sleep, lower level in students’ ability to learn, and a lower frustration tolerance. Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Luther Terry stated that “excessive noise exposure during pregnancy can influence embryonic development.” Other cities around the country are beginning to recognize, debate and institute restrictions to the threats posed by the use of leaf blowers--Winnetka, Ill, Scarsdale, N.Y., and Oyster Bay and North Hempstead on Long Island just to name a few.

One popular alternative to the gasoline powered machine is the electric leaf blower, which is significantly quieter than its notorious counterpart, and does not emit combustion pollutants. Riding vacuum cleaners designed mainly for large yard cleanup are also in use by some homeowners, but most of these are also gasoline engine powered. The leaf blower is a familiar nuisance that deserves greater public awareness and concern. Meanwhile, for tidying up our yards just as effectively, and about as fast, and providing usually much needed outdoor exercise, we can still employ the traditional rake and broom, used in conjunction with bags and trash containers, and be spared the leaf blowers noise, pollution, and uncontrolled scattering of hazardous irritants over large expanses of our environment. Residents also need to mulch - - a practice which yields valuable benefits both to the environment and to all the things that we want to encourage to grow more vigorously and beautifully in our gardens.

Bans on leaf blowers began in Beverly Hills, California in 1976. Since then leaf blower banning movements have occurred in many other U.S. localities. The city of Houston and its residents need to become more aware of the adverse consequences of the leaf blowers use and enact a ban for a safer environment for everyone.

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