In the 1970s suburb I grew up in, no one I knew blew their leaves. Across the continent in California, though, the leaf blower was starting to be commercially available. Adapted from a portable agricultural machine used to spray chemicals on orchards and crops, the leaf blower was variously hailed as a labor-saving replacement of the yard rake and, somewhat bizarrely, as a water-saving device (instead of washing sidewalks in drought-stricken places, blow them clear). Almost immediately people objected to the very loud and obnoxious racket that these gas-powered machines made. By 1975, Carmel, California, had banned leaf blowers. Other towns followed. But despite the work of citizen’s organizations and success in banning, here we are today with lawn crews and homeowners blasting leaves and anything else deemed messy on any given day, sunrise to sunset, year round. Even in towns and cities that have restrictions and bans, it turns out, enforcement is lax.
The leaf blower was invented to sanitize the landscape. And that is very strange because this is a very dirty tool. How dirty? According to the manual of the Stihl company that makes them:
“As soon as the engine is running, this product generates toxic exhaust fumes containing chemicals, such as unburned hydrocarbons (including benzene) and carbon monoxide [emphasis mine], that are known to cause respiratory problems, cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm. Some of the gases (e.g. carbon monoxide) may be colorless and odorless.”
The Stihl manual further warns:
“Inhalation of certain dusts, especially organic dusts such as mold or pollen, can cause susceptible persons to have an allergic or asthmatic reaction. Substantial or repeated inhalation of dust and other airborne contaminants, in particular those with a smaller particle size, may cause respiratory or other illnesses. This includes wood dust, especially from hardwoods, but also from some softwoods such as Western Red Cedar. Control dust at the source where possible. Use good work practices, such as operating the unit so that the wind or operating process directs any dust raised by the power tool away from the operator. Follow the recommendations of EPA/OSHA/NIOSH and occupational and trade associations with respect to “particulate matter”). When the inhalation of dust cannot be substantially controlled, i.e., kept at or near the ambient (background) level, the operator and any bystanders should wear a respirator approved by NIOSH/MSHA for the type of dust encountered.”
Another warning statement tells operators to beware silica dust, a component of concrete and masonry products. Such dust “may contain crystalline silica,” which is known to cause cancer. But extensive landscaping takes place around newly built homes and buildings, and that landscaping work usually includes leaf blowers among the cleanup tools.
Here’s another tidbit that wasn’t even on my list of worries; again, a direct quote from the operator’s manual:
“Prolonged use of a power tool (or other machines) exposing the operator to vibrations may produce white finger disease (Raynaud’s phenomenon) or carpal tunnel syndrome. These conditions reduce the hand’s ability to feel and regulate temperature, produce numbness and burning sensations and may cause nerve and circulation damage and tissue necrosis.”
Hearing loss is almost inevitable if one uses a gas-powered leaf blower on a regular basis. The EPA considers exposure to noise levels at 85 decibels to be harmful to human hearing. Leaf blowers expose operators to 115 decibels. The Stihl manual again: “Power tool noise may damage your hearing. Wear sound barriers (ear plugs or ear mufflers) to protect your hearing. Continual and regular users should have their hearing checked regularly. Be particularly alert and cautious when wearing hearing protection because your ability to hear warnings (shouts, alarms, etc.) is restricted.”
These are published facts, but I rarely see landscape workers wearing hearing protection, dust masks, and goggles, all required for proper use, according to the manual. The manual does not address how it is that bystanders or next-door neighbors can manage to place themselves 50 feet away (the magic number) from their neighbor’s blowing activities when houses might be only 10 feet apart. Forget the absurdity, of course, of having to guess and prepare for when a neighbor might be having his or her yard “dusted.”
Okay, the manual spells out the potential (I would say inevitable) cost to the human body of using leaf blowers. Let’s look at it from the point of view of the garden and the natural world the garden lives in. What might a 200-mile-per-hour blast of air do to the land and the plants and creatures living on it? It can blow away the organic top layer of the soil. This is the part of the soil that is slowly decomposing, providing food to a host of invertebrates and micoorganisms that in turn carry nutrients below ground where they become accessible to plant roots. This layer keeps the ground cooler and retains water. Blowing that away in heat of summer, or worse, during a drought, is a double whammy of plant stress.
Studies in recent years have also shown that noise pollution is a contributor to habitat loss for wildlife. It has been shown to interfere with bird communication, even causing male birds to raise the pitch of their songs, which affects mating. Imagine you’ve just finished your nest, it seems like a cozy place to raise your young and an hour later there’s this noise-, wind-, and heat-blasting thing at the foot of the tree you call home.
So, I rake because it never occurred to me not to. I grew into gardening in a community garden where it isn’t practical, economical, or possible to have power tools. The garden is a quiet place in a loud city, and it’s a place where we gardeners can engage directly with nature instead of being passive onlookers in parks and playgrounds. I find raking to be a soothing chore, almost graceful, that works the whole body, kind of like a waltz. Since taking gardening courses, I’ve also gained some practical tips for deploying garden tools. The tip for raking sounds simple but makes a big difference: Stand up straight and keep your raking motions within a couple of feet of your body. Bending over and reaching the rake out as far as it can go may seem like it accomplishes more, but it actually reduces control over the rake and tires the body much faster.
That does, however, bring me to fact that people buy these things to save labor or they hire landscape workers to clean up leaves and nobody in the business uses a rake anymore. That puts people who can’t rake because of age, disabilities, or time constraints in a particularly bad position, especially if they are environmentally conscious gardeners. On the other side of the coin are lawn workers trying to earn a living who can only remain competitive if they can speed through each job, frequently using more than one leaf blower per property (another no-no, according to the manual, apparently not a well-read document).
A way out of this dilemma is already happening with the rethinking of the American yard through native plantings, lawn reduction, mulching mowers, and composting. At the same time, electric blowers are now available. I think they still pose environmental problems, and I don’t think lawn companies will trade in their gas-powered blowers unless they are forced to. But we can resist the current highly marketed aesthetic that demands a spotless lawn and garden. Do we really want to fund landscape companies that put their workers at risk, raise the asthma levels in neighborhoods, threaten wildlife, and assist in the overall burning up of our planet? Fellow gardeners, let us rake.