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Time to ban gas-powered leaf blowers

Huntington Town extended its ban on commercial landscapers

Huntington Town extended its ban on commercial landscapers using gas-powered blowers at residences. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Leaf blowers are devil's trumpets, snarling most every time of the year, shooing away offending grass clippings and leaves to bring that pristine look of The Masters golf tournament to a home near you.

These machines have long provided neighbors with sources of bonding (by complaining) and hypocrisy (it’s hard not to succumb to their quick results). At least 200 cities have turned their collective agita into bans or restrictions. Huntington Town just extended its ban on commercial landscapers using gas-powered blowers at residences to include Saturdays, joining Sundays and holidays. The updated law also bans residential use on Saturdays between Memorial Day and Labor Day. There are even legislative rumblings about a statewide ban on gas-powered lawn equipment by 2027.

Last month, the resistance achieved its most significant victory when California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill to phase out new "small off-road engines" — gas-powered leaf blowers, generators, pressure washers and chain saws — and ban their sale completely by 2024.

With noise complaints against these things rising, and with roughly a quarter of the workforce still in the home office, still having to shut out the fresh air to hear each other on Zoom calls, tolerance is growing palpably thin.

The statistics on gas-powered blowers would seem impossible if they were not furnished by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: In one hour, a leaf blower produces 26 times as much carbon monoxide as a large car, 498 times as many volatile organic compounds, and 49 times as much particulate matter, specifically the smallest kind linked to increased cancer rates and cardiovascular and lung diseases, and an increased chance of dying from COVID-19.

In California, gas-powered lawn equipment is soon to surpass the state’s 19 million cars as the largest contributor to atmospheric pollution.

At 85 decibels, gas blowers damage the sound-sensing hair cells in the inner ear, usually beyond repair. Some can limit their use of these things to a half-hour; others work with them hours each day, often without masks or ear protection.

So, a turn to electric lawn equipment sounds better. Instead of the long-frequency waves gas blowers emit, higher-frequency electric blowers are less impactful. One study compared gas and electric machines at 75 decibels and found that the gas blower affected 15 times as many households. Then again, batteries don’t grow freely on trees.

But there is technology dating back to the ancient Sumerians — the rake. Imagine your children joining you in raking the yard. Or your neighbors, sharing an earnest afternoon of leaf gathering.

There is a point to clearing leaves. If unchecked for an entire season, they can mold into wet blankets and suffocate the grass. Lawn care experts, though, generally agree there is a better way to do this than with biweekly, Mach-speed winds that erode topsoil and strip food sources for insects and birds. They point to the nutrients in leaves themselves — in the form of mulch. It’s as if nature has its own way of taking care of itself.

We read regularly about the negative consequences of climate change and yet the gas-powered, carbon-belching leaf blower chorus continues, loud as ever, and lawns are freed only temporarily of leaves. It is tragically tone-deaf.

Our most populated state has opened the door for the rest of us. Let’s use this momentum to regain common sense.

This guest essay reflects the opinions of Tim Donahue, a high school English teacher who lives in Westchester County and writes about climate change and education.

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