It’s that time of year again: the leaves are changing color, the air is turning cool and crisp, and gas-powered leaf blowers are out in full force.
Every week in the fall, an army of landscapers descends on my neighborhood and other neighborhoods like it across the country. They spend hours combing through our subdivision, chasing down leaf after leaf, and corralling them into piles. The high-pitched hum from gas-powered leaf blowers has been providing the backing soundtrack to many of my recent Zoom meetings, interrupting my train of thought as I try to work from home. And I know I’m not the only one annoyed by the sound.
But these leaf blowers are more than just annoying: they’re also highly polluting and dangerous to our health.
Gas-powered leaf blowers are typically powered by two-stroke engines. As the Washington Post reports: “The two-stroke engine is lightweight and powerful—but it’s one inefficient, dirty little machine.”
Roughly 30% of the fuel used in two-stroke engines fails to undergo complete combustion, resulting in the release of toxic pollutants into the environment. These pollutants include carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, and hydrocarbons. Aside from its well-known health risks, carbon monoxide contributes to ground-level ozone; nitrous oxides and hydrocarbons are components of smog; and if that weren’t enough, hydrocarbons are also carcinogenic.
A 2011 study comparing a consumer-grade leaf blower to a Ford F-150 Raptor pickup truck found that the leaf blower emitted 23 times the amount of carbon monoxide as the truck, double the amount of nitrous oxide, and nearly 300 times the amount of hydrocarbons. Another study found that pollution from operating a commercial leaf blower for one hour was equivalent to driving 1,100 miles in a 2017 Toyota Camry. That’s approximately 16 hours of driving, or a road trip from Los Angeles to Denver.
With so much pollution emitted from a single leaf blower, it’s frightening to think about the implications of daylong weekly visits from a team of landscapers dauntlessly, if fleetingly, eliminating all evidence of fall from our neighborhood sidewalks, driveways, and lawns.
Let me be clear: the gardeners wielding their backpack blowers are not the enemy. In fact, these landscapers, who are often low-wage workers, are at the highest risk for health issues related to polluting equipment. A 2018 study by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) found that operators of gas-powered devices, including leaf blowers, could potentially double their risk of cancer. This is the result of exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Among the carcinogenic compounds emitted by leaf blowers are benzene, butadiene, and formaldehyde. And that’s not to mention the other hazards of the job, including potential hearing loss and the inhalation of toxic particulate matter—picture the dust clouds that often accompany leaf blowing—that are all part of a day’s work.
So, what can be done about gas-powered leaf blowers? In some ways, they seem to be a solution in search of a problem. As Michael Shapiro recently wrote in Sierra magazine,
“Of all the outrages of leaf blowers, this one may be the simplest: They’re unnecessary, even counterproductive. Leaves don’t need to be blown. They can be raked up, swept away, or just left where they fall, to fertilize the ground and bring new life into the world.”
Unless you have a vast yard with multiple potential safety hazards, like stairs, where wet leaves could pose a risk, sweeping, raking, or simply letting leaves lie are easy alternatives to blasting leaves with manmade, hurricane force wind. As for commercial landscapers, cities like Santa Barbara, California, and Washington, DC, where bans on gas-powered leaf blowers have been implemented or signed into law, are offering rebates and other incentives for making the switch to electric lawn equipment.
Let’s hope that other cities and states will soon follow in the footsteps of California and Washington, DC, and make gasoline-powered lawn equipment a thing of the past.