Guest Rant by Evelyn Hadden (Before she became a regular!)
Let’s face it, the outdoors is getting noisier, and not in a good way. It used to be that a person could find calm, quiet places even in the city — be it a park, a secluded backyard, or a low-traffic residential street.
But that was before leafblowers.
I know, singling out one type of machine isn’t fair. Mowers and other powered landscaping tools contribute noise too, not to mention the booming bass of our car stereos, planes droning overhead, sirens and car alarms, and of course cell phone ring tones, which can and do interrupt the silence anytime, anywhere. Plus, there are just more people, and that’s going to continue (a rant for another time — watch our worldwide population grow here.
But back to leafblowers. Especially gas-powered ones. I mourn the abandonment of rakes and brooms in favor of small engines that has led to noisier, more polluted landscapes. I’m not alone. Leafblowers are already banned in some cities and are being considered for bans in others. (1)
Though there are some situations in which they may be the best tool for the job, in my opinion their widespread use should be curbed for the good of us all. Let’s break it down.
A leafblower’s very reason for being is to remove fallen leaves. This isn’t always healthy for your plants. Though lawns cannot survive under a layer of leaves, other plants (especially trees and woodland plants) will thrive with an undisturbed layer of leaf litter, which protects roots, fosters soil life, and is decomposed into nutrients that feed the plants.
Leafblowers interfere with animals’ ability to communicate with each other in order to find mates, hunt, and avoid predators. (2) Removing leaf litter destroys the habitat of many beneficial and beautiful insects. (3)
Leafblowers blow away not just leaves but topsoil, exposing the ground to further erosion and colonization by wind-blown weed seeds. Blasts of hot, dry air (and the removal of protective organic matter on top of the soil) destroy the top layer of soil microbial life, which is the most active in powering the soil food web. (4)
Leafblowers threaten our hearing. Operators (and anyone who happens to pass within 50 feet) who don’t wear ear protection risk hearing damage. (5)
They cause damage to our lungs (again, not just the operators of the machinery are affected), polluting the air and exacerbating allergies. The American Lung Association recommends avoiding gas-powered leafblowers for your health. (6)
This air pollution comes from the dust they stir up; particulate matter is a recognized pollutant on its own, and it also may contain pollens, animal feces, landscape chemicals, lead, mold spores, and other contaminants that are unhealthy for us to breathe.
Additional pollution comes from their exhaust fumes, spewing out carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and hydrocarbons (CO, NOx, and HC) at levels greater than automobiles. (7)
Last but certainly not least, they shatter our peace. Exposure to noise can interrupt sleep, depress our immune systems, increase anxiety and hostility, lower our productivity, aggravate heart disease, cause gastrointestinal distress, increase birth defects, and reduce cognitive development in children. (8)
Supposedly, leafblowers make landscaping tasks easier. Experiments comparing them to rakes show that’s debatable (9). Even if it were true, is avoiding the rake or broom really worth the negative consequences?
Sweeping walkways and raking leaves can be healthy and pleasant outdoor activities that afford moderate exercise. This exercise is free and you can do it with the whole family. While you’re at it, you can breathe the fresh air (rather than wearing a mask), converse and listen to birds and crickets (rather than wearing ear protection), and generally glory in the natural beauty of your garden.
Though in some cases, a leafblower may be the only effective tool — say, removing fallen leaves from a cactus garden or grooming a gravel walkway in a public park — using a rake or broom to maintain a modest-sized home landscape is healthier for the plants and animals, more considerate of your neighbors, and healthier for them and you as well.
What do you think of leafblowers: friend or foe?
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(1) Leafblowers have been illegal in LA for over a decade; video with Ed Begley Jr.
(2) Urban noise has a negative effect on wildlife in general.
(3) Meet some of the insects that overwinter in fallen leaves.
(4) Travis Beck’s recent book Principles of Ecological Landscape Design explains how to support and nurture soil life (the key to healthy plants).
(5) Leafblowers emit 65 to 75 decibels of noise at 50 feet, close to 100 decibels for the operator. Noise levels higher than 85 decibels carry a significant risk of hearing damage. A report sponsored by the World Health Organization recommends ambient outdoor noise levels of no more than 55 db.
(6) Number 8 in the American Lung Association’s “Top 10 Ways to Protect Your Lungs” is foregoing leafblowers and other gas-powered landscaping tools.
(7) Summary of the California EPA study of leafblower-caused air pollution.
(8) Read about the various health risks of exposure to noise. For much more detail about human health effects, download this 60-page PDF from the California Air and Resources Board.
(9) The Los Angeles Department of Power and Water conducted tests pitting a grandma with a rake against a pro with a leafblower. A landscaping company conducted its own test, which led it to choose rakes over leafblowers.