Wide Angle: Dirty and Loud

outdoor manual worker clean the fallen leaves on the road by blower in autumn

Ah, fall has returned … along with one of its true joys: the deafening sound of gas-guzzling leaf blowers.

Some models produce more than 100 decibels of wall-penetrating, low-frequency noise. They can blow air at up to 280 miles per hour. This easily intrudes into the home, and with more people working from home that is now a work problem, not just a disturbance of a weekend barbecue.

Beacon has a regulation (Section 149-6) that limits outdoor sound levels in residential zones to a maximum of 60 decibels in the daytime, so in principle the loudest leaf blowers should be banned. But the city exempts leaf blowers and other lawn equipment from the ordinance. Considering it’s the loudest residential nose, that’s just crazy. Cold Spring allows more noise, setting its residential sound limit for power equipment of 5 horsepower or less at 75 decibels at 50 feet.

Leaf blowers are more than loud. They are environmental disasters in a convenient, handheld form. The dust they blow up can contain pollen, mold, animal feces, heavy metals and chemicals from herbicides and pesticides that increase the risk of lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, premature births and asthma.

More than 100 municipalities in the U.S. have banned or limited the use of gas-powered leaf blowers. Larchmont, in Westchester County, passed a ban in September 2020. Montclair, New Jersey, prohibits gas leaf blowers except between March 15 to May 15 and Oct. 15 to Dec. 15, and limits the times when they can be used, so zealous neighbors or the crew they hired can’t wake you at 6 a.m. on Sunday. (Notably, these prohibitions do not apply to electric leaf blowers.) 

California will ban gas-powered leaf blowers starting next year, but until then, the state’s passenger vehicles produce less pollution than its lawn equipment does, because California has the most stringent car emissions laws in the country.

How much pollution are we talking about? In one oft-cited study, Edmunds.com found in 2011 that a two-stroke, gas-powered leaf blower was worse for the environment than a Ford F-150 Raptor pickup. Specifically, “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.” That’s astonishing, and terrible.

The journalist James Fallows has an apt analogy: “Using a two-stroke engine is like heating your house with an open pit fire in the living room — and chopping down your trees to keep it going, and trying to whoosh away the fetid black smoke before your children are poisoned by it.”

Earlier this year, the Beacon City Council considered whether to ban leaf blowers. City attorneys drafted a law that would restrict the use of blowers, including a ban from May 15 to Sept. 30. The arguments focused on the noise.

City Administrator Chris White made an odd argument against the proposed ban. “I don’t think you want to send police to give tickets to low-income workers because they are using a tool of their trade,” he said. The counter is that the city created ordinances to prohibit noise but allows loud equipment anyway. The incomes of the people wielding them is irrelevant.

We should ask our municipal governments to explicitly ban gas-powered leaf blowers as soon as possible, say, starting Jan. 1. Lawn maintenance companies would have to shift to electric. Perhaps a year later, we could include other gas-powered equipment, and require zero-emission lawn mowers, lawn edgers and hedge trimmers. A year after that, we could add chain saws, snowblowers, power washers and portable generators, except during declared emergencies or by permit.

It’s time for us to get out of the Stone Age. After all, our yards are part of the environment, too.

4 thoughts on “Wide Angle: Dirty and Loud

  1. I agree, it’s getting ridiculous, everyone blowing the leaves on different days, there is never any peace. We should leave the leaves or raked to the sides of yards. Many creatures overwinter in the leaves that are important for a balanced eco system and should be protected.

  2. A leaf-blower ban would be unenforceable. You’d turn every neighbor who spots someone using a gas-powered blower into a snitch. We have noise ordinances on the books for motorcycles but how many tickets have been written for that in the past decade? Further, do you plan to regulate and dramatically change how lawn services conduct business?

    I understand the desire to be more environmentally friendly. I switched to a battery-powered string trimmer that has gone well, with less mess and lower noise. But creating local ordinances is futile. (via Instagram)

Leave a Reply

The Current welcomes comments on its coverage and local issues. All online comments are moderated, must include your full name and may appear in print. See our guidelines here.