Whittelsey: Leave the leaf blower obsession behind
October has arrived, and with it crisp temperatures, swirling leaves . . . and the deafening roar of leaf blowers.
My neighbor's hired crew was just out doing a fall cleanup around her yard, blowers blasting the leaves out of every crevice, even the beds of ivy. So uniformly bare and brown was the dirt around her shrubs that it looked as if she had followed them with a dust rag to rub away every last leaf.
It's as if someone has declared a new standard for suburban landscapes: No leaves allowed.
There's hardly a home or office building on Long Island where clearing the leaves has not become an expensive, polluting, unhealthy and earsplitting exercise. Our yard care practices are subverting the very qualities of life -- clean air, quiet and good health -- that suburbanites supposedly treasure.
People used to just rake the leaves off their lawns to keep the grass from getting smothered, but they left the leaves in shrub beds and borders. This natural mulch kept the plant roots warm in the winter and discouraged weeds in the spring. By summer, the leaves had decayed into the dirt, renewing the fertility of the soil.
A perfect system of sustainability, this natural cycle was free, used no energy and caused no pollution.
But these days, both do-it-yourselfers and paid crews are out there every autumn with blowers roaring, potentially damaging the hearing of handlers who don't wear any ear protection, and polluting the air. They blast every last leaf not just off the lawn but also out of shrub and ground cover beds.
Then in the spring, homeowners pay for mulch, dyed a uniform color, to spread on the achingly bare beds.
One result of this mania for neatness is the pollution of the air right where we live. An Orange County, Calif., grand jury studied the pollution caused by leaf blowers in 1999 to issue recommendations to municipalities and other government entities. The panel found that "exhaust pollution per leaf blower per hour is the equivalent of the amount of smog from 17 cars driven one hour and is localized in the area of blower usage."
Since that time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has adopted emission reductions for newer leaf blowers, especially those built since 2006.
But the very point of the machines is to blow debris around -- usually from someone's yard into the public streets. The California grand jury found that the high-velocity air jets whip up about five pounds per hour per blower of particulate matter "composed of dust, fecal matter, pesticides, fungi, chemicals, fertilizers, spores, and street dirt which consists of lead and organic and elemental carbon."
Experts agree that asthma is worsened by, and maybe caused by, particulate matter in the air. Every time you use a leaf blower, or let a landscaping crew do so, you are putting pollutants into the air that may be contributing to the asthma, allergies and other breathing problems suffered by your own family members and those of your neighbors.
And by the way, the Orange County grand jury also found that clearing leaves the old-fashioned way, with rakes and brooms, took just 6 percent more labor time than the blower method.
A number of municipalities in Westchester County have part-year bans on leaf blowers. But even those end in September or October. The bottom line is that home and business owners across our region are unnecessarily spending money, polluting the air and disturbing the peace in pursuit of an unnaturally neat vision of a landscape. Let the leaves stay in your flower and shrub beds, and use a rake to clear the lawn.
Work with nature, and we'll all breathe better in the quiet.
Frances Cerra Whittelsey, a writer in Huntington, is co-founder of the Long Island Community Agriculture Network, which builds community gardens and encourages people and institutions to dig up lawns and grow food everywhere.