Gas-powered leaf blowers face a moment of reckoning

ALTADENA, Calif. — With the Omicron variant of the coronavirus still circulating, six friends gathered last Saturday for an outdoor brunch on the patio of a house in Los Angeles County. But as the meal got underway, a steady roar from a gas-powered leaf blower, like a hair dryer on steroids, drew closer from across a fence line, drowning out the conversation.

“The leaf blower is a truly vile invention,” one of the guests, Geoff Dyer, a writer and visiting professor at the University of Southern California, said over the noise, “a major setback to the progress of civilization.”

Dyer is not alone in that view, and neighboring Pasadena is one of dozens of California cities that enacted restrictions on the use of leaf blowers over the last decade. The outcry over the ubiquitous devices grew so loud, in fact, that in October, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill that will mean the end of the use of gas-powered leaf blowers and lawn mowers in the state.

But addressing the noise pollution they cause wasn't the main reason behind the legislation. Small off-road engines, or SOREs, are a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, causing spikes in asthma in workers who operate them.

“Today, operating the best-selling commercial lawn mower for one hour emits as much smog-forming pollution as driving the best-selling 2017 passenger car, a Toyota Camry, about 300 miles — approximately the distance from Los Angeles to Las Vegas,” the California Air Resources Board said in a recent fact sheet. “For the best-selling commercial leaf blower, one hour of operation emits smog-forming pollution comparable to driving a 2017 Toyota Camry about 1,100 miles, or approximately the distance from Los Angeles to Denver."

With California looking to take the lead on reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, the new law mandates that all SOREs used in the state starting in 2024 be zero-emission, and the state Legislature has set aside $30 million to help aid landscapers and gardeners in that transition.

Pedro Ortiz from Allied Landscaping
The use of gasoline-powered leaf blowers in California will be severely restricted in the wake of new legislation. (Sarah Dussault/MediaNews Group/Mercury News via Getty Images)

“It’s amazing how people react when they learn how much this equipment pollutes, and how much smog-forming and climate-changing emissions that small off-road engine equipment creates,” Assembly Member Marc Berman, the author of the legislation, told the Los Angeles Times. “This is a pretty modest approach to try to limit the massive amounts of pollution that this equipment emits, not to mention the health impact on the workers who are using it constantly.”

While considered a scourge by many Americans, leaf blowers do have one big advantage over rakes: they reduce the time it takes to do yard work.

“If you want the job done fast, a leaf blower is the way to go,” Consumer Reports wrote back in 2011. “In our man-versus-machine rake-off, a handheld blower was twice as fast as a rake.”

While the greenhouse gas emissions had yet to be scrutinized, the magazine did, however, acknowledge the sonic assault unleashed by leaf blowers.

“Noise is also a major issue. Indeed, some communities have gone so far as to ban the use of leaf blowers. Others prohibit blowers that exceed a certain decibel level,” the editors wrote.

Hundreds of cities and towns in the U.S., including Washington, D.C.; Burlington, Vt.; Houston; Palm Beach, Fla.; Aspen, Colo.; and Highland Park, Ill., have enacted restrictions on the use of leaf blowers. Among those restrictions: forbidding gas-powered units, imposing decibel limits and limiting what days one can use them.

On Wednesday, the Boston City Council agreed to consider a resolution that would outlaw gas-powered SOREs. Kenzie Block, a city councilor representing the Fenway, Mission Hill, Back Bay, Bay Village and Beacon Hill neighborhoods, said the main impetus for the ban was health-related.

“Leaf blowers can pose serious health risks,” he told UniversalHub.

The city already has noise noise restrictions designed to prevent “anything louder than 50 decibels from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. or anything louder than 70 decibels at any time, except for permitted construction.”

At a distance of 50 feet, the average leaf blower emits noise between 64 and 78 decibels, the Boston Globe reported.

The annoyance over the noise caused by leaf blowers is nothing new. In 2017, police in the Boston suburb of Newton, Mass., whose population is just under 90,000, responded to 320 complaints over a seven-month period after the town passed its own ordinance limiting the amount of noise leaf blowers were allowed to make.

But as more studies emerge detailing the environmental impacts of two-stroke engines used in gas-powered leaf blowers and mowers, other states could follow California’s lead in requiring residents to transition to electric alternatives. State legislators in Illinois and New York have introduced ordinances that would ban the operation or sale of gas-powered leaf blowers.

Critics say California hasn't provided enough funding to help landscapers make the transition to electric leaf blowers. But the environmental costs of continuing to allow SOREs are also steep. Data from 2018 from the U.S. Department of Transportation showed that Americans used just shy of 3 million gallons of gasoline tending to their yards and gardens, and the resulting emissions are bad for climate change as well as human health.