LEAF BLOWER FACTS
Click Below For Information On:
Leaf Blower Noise and Its Consequences
Air Pollution From Leaf Blowers
Leaf Blowers and Health: Letter to California Air Resources Board
A Brief History of the Leaf Blower
CQS Rebuttal to the CLCA Position on Leaf Blowers
Blowers Are Bad For Gardens: One Professional's Opinion
Grandmother Proves Rake and Broom as Fast as Leaf Blowers
Noise interferes with communication, sleep, and work. The U.S. EPA says noise degrades quality of life by impairing communication and social interaction; reducing the accuracy of work, particularly complex tasks; and creating stressful levels of frustration and aggravation that last even when the noise has ceased (1).
Sacramento's city code states "Every person in the city is entitled to live in an environment free from excessive, unnecessary or offensive noise levels." Our General Plan states that the normally acceptable ambient noise level in residential areas is no more than 60 dB; 60-70 is conditionally acceptable; and higher levels are normally unacceptable. The decibel scale is logarithmic--each increase of 10, say 60 to 70, represents a noise 10 times louder.
The average blower measures 70-75 dB at 50 feet according to a manufacturer's lobbyist (2), thus louder at any closer distance. Leaf blowers are routinely used less than 50 feet from unconsenting pedestrians and neighboring homes that may be occupied by home workers, retirees, day sleepers, children, the ill or disabled, and pets.
The World Health Organization recommends general daytime outdoor noise levels of 55 dBA* or less, but 45 dBA to meet sleep criteria (3). Thus, even a 65-decibel leaf blower would be 100 times too loud** to allow healthful sleep (which often takes place during daytime hours for night workers and others). Noise can impair sleep even when the sleeper is not awakened.
Don't be fooled by comparison of 65 decibels from a leaf blower to the volume of a normal conversation. You wouldn't want a noise in your home as loud as a normal conversation that you had not invited and could not control. In any case, no backpack blower on the market meets the 65 dB standard. Echo claims to (for one of their seven available models) but Consumer Reports says that's not true (4).
Acoustics experts say blower noise is especially irritating because of its particular pitch, the changing amplitude, and the lack of control by the hearer (5).
Blower noise can impair gardeners' hearing. A blower measuring 70-75 dB at 50 feet can reach 90-100 dB at the operator's ear. OSHA requires hearing protection for noise over 85, and according to the World Health Organization, "there is an increasing predictable risk" of hearing damage from noise above 75 dBA. Use of certain antibiotics can create vulnerability at lower noise levels. Anecdotally we have examples of hearing loss in gardeners. Sacramento Bee writer Edie Lau quotes one local gardener: "Eventually it's going to hurt everyone who uses it...I'm already a little bit deaf..." Deafness is a serious problem because it causes social isolation by impairing communication. Deafness caused by noise is irreversible. According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology, half the wearers of hearing protectors do not get the expected benefit, due to improper fit or failure to wear them continuously (6).
Blower noise endangers gardeners in other ways as well. According to Dr. Alice Suter, in a 1994 report to the OSHA Standards Planning Committee, there is recent evidence "that high levels of noise and the resulting hearing losses contribute to industrial accidents" and "hearing protection devices...may actually impair work safety under certain conditions...In addition, there is growing evidence that noise adversely affects general health, and the cardiovascular system in particular." (7)
As Kenneth Maue writes in the Autumn 1997 Right to Quiet newsletter: "When harsh noise hits, instead of reaching out to greet the world with open ears, we shrink back into shells, or try to; in truth the ears can't shut, nor like the eyes turn away. Noise controls space like an occupying army, travels through walls, enters homes, molests bodies, violates privacy, stops thought, batters each of us into isolation." (8) Noise causes loss of community and is both a sign and a cause of aggression and violence.
* the A-weighting (expressed as dBA) is one way of evaluating high and low frequencies to approximate the ear's response
** from 45 to 65 is two ten-fold increases, or 10 x 10
The California Air Resources Board (ARB) says air pollution costs our state billions of dollars annually in health care and crop and building damage. It irritates eyes and throats, harms lungs, and causes cancer and premature death (1), including sudden death from heart attacks. Ozone*, a gas, is Sacramento's worst air pollution problem (2), and we also have unhealthy levels of liquid and solid particulate matter (PM**) (3). Blowers, especially gasoline-powered, contribute to both of these. Emissions from the two-stroke combustion engine include PM as well as gaseous carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and hydrocarbons (CO, NOx, and HC). Leaf blowers also raise (entrain) dust from the ground. And evaporative emissions of fuel occur during the refueling process, which sometimes spills gas on the operators, and from the fuel tank. Comparisons that exclude some of these could understate the problem.
Fine PM2.5 particles, which are man-made and do not occur in nature, evade the body's defense systems. According to the EPA and ARB they can increase the number and severity of asthma attacks, cause or aggravate bronchitis or other lung disease, and reduce our ability to fight infections (4).
Leaf blower motors are inordinately large emitters of CO, NOx, HC, and PM according to a study conducted for the ARB (5). Two-stroke engine fuel is a gasoline-oil mixture, thus especially toxic. Particles from combustion are virtually all smaller than PM2.5. According to the Lung Association, a leaf blower causes as much smog as 17 cars.
Street dust includes lead, organic carbon, and elemental carbon according to a study conducted for the ARB. The Lung Association states "the lead levels are of concern due to [their] great acute toxicity... Elemental carbon...usually contains several adsorbed carcinogens." Another study found arsenic, cadmium, chromium, nickel, and mercury in street dust as well (6). The ARB states that a leaf blower creates 2.6 pounds of PM10 dust emissions per hour of use (7), and based on this a report from the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District states that leaf blower dust is responsible for two percent of our PM (8). Blowers are widely used in residential areas where many people are exposed.
The EPA and ARB, in their brochure "Particulate Matter Air Pollution: A threat to our health" advise us, "Avoid using leaf blowers." The multi-agency Best Available Control Measure Working Group agrees.
In November 1997 the Los Angeles Times reported on studies by Kaiser and the California EPA showing a correlation between levels of air pollution and hospital admissions for cardiopulmonary problems (9). These reinforce conclusions reported in the August 1997 issue of Consumer Reports, which described the effect on preschool children as "especially startling." (10) Fifty thousand people in the city of Sacramento are particularly vulnerable to air pollution because of asthma or cardiopulmonary disease (11). Healthy adults and children who play or exercise vigorously are also at risk (1).
Sacramento must reduce its smog-forming emissions by 40 percent by the year 2005 in order to achieve healthier air (3), yet the Portable Power Equipment Manufacturers Association has asked its California members to lobby against stricter emission regulations developed by the ARB for 1999 (12).
This letter discusses some of the health effects of leaf blowers, with information sources noted for further reference (sources listed elsewhere on our web site are not necessarily repeated here). Although certain facts can be and have been documented by studies, a number of conclusions about the health effects of leaf blowers -- as they are used in actual practice today -- can be reached simply by using common sense and logic, and some of these conclusions are included in the following discussion.
General Comment on Level of Danger: In ordinary use, blowers are clearly not being operated according to the manufacturers' own warnings. According to warnings (such as Echo's "Power Blower Operators Manual"), everyone within 50 feet of a blower in use should be wearing hearing, eye, and breathing protection. We all know from our own observations that this is not done, and it is preposterous it ever could be, as blowers are often used within less than 50 feet of bystanders such as pedestrians, cyclists, and even people inside their own homes who can hardly be expected to put on hearing, eye, and breathing protection each time they encounter a leaf blower!
Noise - Effects on the General Public: In 1980, the World Health Organization and United Nations jointly sponsored a report, "Environmental Health Criteria 12. Noise," which contained "the collective views of an international group of experts." The report listed a variety of health effects, both on workers in noisy industries and for populations in noisy living environments. Based on the evidence reviewed and the opinions of these experts, the report recommended these community noise levels:
In the absence of any report to the contrary, we should not have to reinvent the wheel by proving noise is bad. The only question thus remaining is: Do leaf blowers conform to the WHO report standard? The answer is obviously no.
Whether or not any particular leaf blower conforms to its advertised noise level as determined by standards promulgated by the American National Standards Institute is not relevant. The ANSI standards are measurement methodologies, and do not even purport to be limits on noise pollution. Further, demonstrations in California communities show that the standard does not represent actual experience. For example, in Palo Alto, 1998 and 1999 leaf blower demonstrations conducted by the police department revealed that in actual use blowers exceeded their decibel ratings as supplied by the manufacturers based on ANSI standards (April 27, 1998 City Manager's Report; May 12, 1999 Palo Alto Weekly). Consumer Reports has reached the same conclusion.
Manufacturers should not be allowed to divert discussion to the noise levels produced by their quietest models, when they continue to sell louder models in greater numbers.
Noise levels are only one of the factors that determine the nuisance value of a noise source. Another factor is the frequency of exposure. Leaf Blowers are ubiquitous in California. We report some sales figures in A Brief History of the Leaf Blower on this web site. In preparation for my testimony to the Sacramento Environmental Commission in 1997, I kept a week long diary of leaf blower noise as I experienced it, mostly when I was in my home. (And, I must add, there is nothing more miserable than having one's home invaded by unwelcome noise.) I heard leaf blowers up to eight times a day, sometimes for extended periods.
The very fact that you are now engaged in preparing a report on the health effects of leaf blowers attests to their significance as a problem. The battle over leaf blowers reached the state legislature only after being fought for years in cities all over California and the nation. Judging by the number of citizen groups in the U.S. that have organized to ban leaf blowers, it seems entirely reasonable to place leaf blowers among the top ten sources of U.S. noise pollution (a list of "Known Pro-Quiet Anti-Noise Groups" recently compiled by David Staudacher, moderator of the Quiet-List, supports this assertion). There is a good reason that Echo's list of "Cities with noise activity"' (my copy is dated August 8, 1997) is 21 pages long!
As Eric Zwerling, Director of the Rutgers Noise Technical Assistance Center, stated by telephone (May 6, 1999), "There is an ample body of literature on the health effects of noise." Studies documenting these effects can be found listed in the WHO report discussed above, and additional sources are listed below. Of course, all these effects, which can be predicted for bystanders to frequent leaf blower use would also occur for the operators:
Noise - effects on the operators. A leaf blower that emits 75 decibels of noise measured from 50 feet, not uncommon for professional blower models on the market today will emit 99 dB at three feet (add 6 dB for each halving of the distance). A backpack model will be even closer than that to the operator's ears and heart. The documented effects of these noise levels include:
Entrained dust (and other substances from the ground). Logically, we must assume that anything on the ground in small enough particles to become airborne will end up in the dust clouds created by leaf blowers and then inhaled by anyone in the area. This would include:
Engine emissions and other fuel-related problems. We recognize the ARB'S leadership role in the study and regulation of air pollution, and certainly don't think there is much we need to say about this aspect of leaf blower health issues. However, we do have a few comments for the sake of completeness.
Included with Echo's warning literature accompanying their gas-powered blowers is this message: "Warning! The engine exhaust from this product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm."
According to the U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Specialist Betsy McCabe, quoted in E Magazine, March-April 1997), small gasoline engines create up to 20 percent of the air pollution in cities, particularly NOx and particulates. Although leaf blower engine emissions will be reduced with implementation of the ARB'S Tier II emission standards, it should be noted that millions of blowers already in use do not meet these standards, and may continue in use for years.
In addition to the contribution to overall air pollution from engine emissions and fuel spillage and evaporation, it is reasonable to suggest that the hazards are substantially increased for the blower operators, who are exposed to greatly increased concentrations of these substances. And a further hazard for operators arises from gasoline spilled on their hands (or other body parts) when refueling.
Miscellaneous occasional health effects on the operators. According to the U.S. EPA, "Newspaper files and police records contain reports of incidents that point to noise as a trigger of extreme behavior...sanitation workers have been assaulted, construction foremen threatened, and motorboat operators shot at--all because of the noise they were producing." In a notorious incident, Santa Barbara anti-blower campaigner Ashleigh Brilliant once attacked a gardener and smashed his leaf blower. According to the magazine Lawn & Landscape Maintenance (April 1991), a Los Angeles maintenance contractor cleaning a sidewalk with a leaf blower was stabbed by a man trying to talk on a pay telephone nearby.
"Killer bees" (Africanized honey bees) are known to respond violently to loud noises, and in December 1998 Southern California newspapers reported a gardener stung over 75 times by these bees.
Effects on other living creatures. Any lover of animals can not help but be concerned about the distress and disruption caused pets and small wildlife in our neighborhoods by this unnaturally loud noise.
Alternatives. There are electric blowers on the market today that are dramatically quieter than the typical gas blower, notably, the Blowhard rated at 56 dB and produced by Manutech (800-676-BLOW or http://www.manutech.com). Other innovations have reached prototype stage; for example, the L.A. Times reported on January 8, 1998 that a Van Nuys auto mechanic named Gody Sanchez demonstrated his own invention, a whisper-quiet leaf blower, during the hunger strike conducted by the Association of Latin American Gardeners of Los Angeles outside the L.A. mayor's office.
|19th century||Japanese gardeners invent hand-held bellows to remove leaves and twigs from moss-covered soil. (1)|
|About 1970||Japanese engineers modernize the hand-operated blower by attaching a hose and a powerful motor. (1)|
|1970s||Gas blowers introduced to U.S. (2,3)|
|1975||Carmel bans the blower.|
|1976||Beverly Hills bans blowers, saying they are nuisances. (4)|
|1985||75,000 backpack blowers sold. (1)|
|1986||West Hollywood, CA bans gas blowers.|
|1987||·464,000 units sold.
·Belvedere, CA bans gas-powered blowers.
·millions now in use with California leading the nation. (1,5)
|1990||·Indian Wells, CA bans
·Piedmont, CA bans gas-powered blowers.
·City of Claremont stops using leaf blowers in the maintenance of city property and finds no net increase in labor hours. (6)
|1991||·Ad Hoc Committee to
Ban Leaf Blowers asks the Sacramento City Council to ban leaf blowers;
Council passes noise and time restrictions.
·Berkeley, CA City Council bans gas blowers.
·Los Altos, CA bans gas blowers by popular vote.
·Claremont, CA bans gas blowers.
|1993||·Laguna Beach, CA bans
all leaf blowers.
·Mill Valley, CA bans gas blowers.
|1997||·Sales now over a
million annually and growing 6-8 percent per year. (4,7)
·After an 11-year battle, Los Angeles bans gas-powered blowers within 500 feet of residences; ordinance remains controversial after passage and is twice revised.
·Lawndale bans gas blowers.
·Citizens' group in Santa Barbara qualifies ban for November ballot; voters approve ban 55 percent to 45 percent.
|1998||·Citizens in Palo
Alto, Portola Valley, Sacramento, and Sunnyvale work to ban blowers.
·Menlo Park City Council bans blowers (8)
·Los Angeles ban fully implemented February 13.
·California State Senator Richard Polanco introduces SB1651 that would prohibit California cities from banning leaf blowers.
·Los Angeles Superior Court judge upholds city's ban.
(1) Sacramento Bee,
(2) Lawn & Landscape Maintenance, April 1991
(3) Horticulture, November 1992
(4) Newsday, 8/11/97
(5) Wall Street Journal, 12/4/90
(6) City of Claremont agenda report, 10/30/90
(7) Ketzel Levine, The Oregonian, ca. 1997
(8) Palo Alto Daily News, 3/10/98
Various city ordinances
Proves Rake and Broom as Fast as Leaf Blowers
(January 8, 1998 press release from Zero Air Pollution, Los Angeles)
In fighting the ban on gas powered leaf blowers gardeners have argued that it would take them twice as long to do jobs if they had to use rakes and brooms. But Diane Wolfberg, a Palisadian grandmother in her late 50s, proved them wrong in tests conducted by the Department of Water & Power Leafblower Task Force last Thursday.
In three tests involving gas powered leaf blowers and battery powered leaf blowers, Diane cleaned the areas using rakes or brooms faster than any of the battery powered blowers and almost as fast as the gas powered leaf blowers and she did a better job in cleaning up the areas.
The Task Force, formed at the direction of the Los Angeles City Council, is composed of two representatives from the gardeners' associations and one representative each from the landscape contractors association, the dealers, DWP, the Department of Parks and Recreation, General Services, the City Council, and the homeowners. It is evaluating electrical alternatives to the gas powered leaf blowers. When it was proposed that the electrical equipment be tested against gas powered leaf blowers which would be the baseline for comparison, the homeowner representative, Jack Allen, also of the Palisades, suggested that rakes and brooms be included in the comparison.
Wolfberg, who like Allen, is a member of Zero Air Pollution (ZAP), volunteered. In the first test, which required each participant to clean a pebbled cement patio area approximately 100 square feet in size with eight chairs placed on the patio, diminutive Wolfberg cleaned the area in two minutes and 30 seconds. The gas powered leaf blower operated by a large, well muscled gardener cleaned the area in two minutes but like all the leaf blowers, did not clean the area of small nuts or leaf stems, something Wolfberg was able to do.
In a second test involving the moving of paper cups and wadded paper down a 50 foot slope and back up again, she was as fast as the gas powered leaf blower and faster than the electric blowers. In the third test, requiring the cleaning of a heavy bed of pine needles and dirt down a thirty foot concrete ramp, she was the fastest and the cleanest. The leaf blowers all sent columns of damp dirt flying into the air as much as five or six feet.
Wolfberg's performance did not impress the gardeners but did impress others who had been convinced that using rakes and brooms was not feasible. The representative from DWP told Wolfberg that she had won him over.
Claremont Agenda Report
Prohibition of Leaf Blowers in City Owned and Maintained Property
(excerpt from report dated October 30, 1990)
Following Community Services Commission review in July of this year, staff decided to no longer use leaf blowers in the maintenance of city property. The city's leaf blower ban has added approximately one hour per day of work for each of the two tree crews. There are two people on each crew so we have added about 1/16 of a person in terms of work load. However, the grounds crews have been using a sidewalk vacuum in lieu of a leaf blower and have discovered they are actually saving an hour per day per crew. There are two crews with a total of six people so the city is saving almost 1/5 of a person in terms of workload.
Staff took a noise reading on a vacuum at 50 feet and it read 69 decibels. While this is significantly less than the 73-83 db readings on gas blowers, it is slightly more than the 65-68 db readings on electrical blowers. The vacuum noise is not nearly as annoying as the whining noise of a gas blower. The vacuum is successful in achieving a reduction in dust pollution.
Are Bad For Gardens: One Professional's Opinion
Note: The statements below are taken from Steve Zien's letter to local Assembly members opposing SB 14, the bill that would prohibit California cities from banning blowers. Zien owns and operates Living Resources Company, an organic landscape management service. In addition, he is Executive Director of Biological Urban Gardening Services (BUGS), an international membership organization of primarily professional landscapers. Zien can be reached at (916) 726-5377.
BUGS has opposed the use of leaf blowers for many years for a variety of easons. There are many hidden costs when utilizing blowers regularly.
Wind speeds in excess of 180 mph are currently blasting landscapes throughout California. Leaves are ripped from branches, new growth and developing flowers are damaged and precious topsoil is blown away. Nurseries and Extension Agents are receiving more plant samples from gardeners indicating a tornado or hurricane devastated their landscape plants. In most instances the winds are unnatural in origin. Leaf blowers are producing wind speeds with greater force than a hurricane. They are having devastating effects.
Blower winds stress plants causing dehydration, burned leaves, and the suspension of photosynthesis and other natural plant functions. Overall growth is slowed. Natural openings in the leaves that allow for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide are sealed shut. Disease spores laying dormant on the soil or fallen debris are blown back onto plants where a little moisture can renew their cycle of infestation and damage. The severity of damage corresponds to the training of leaf blower operators. Blowers effectively distribute disease spores, weed seeds and insect eggs throughout the landscape (as well as to neighboring landscapes). Blowers create a disposal problem for many landscape managers gathering up a tremendous amount of organic debris. Instead of utilizing it appropriately on site it is generally hauled away for disposal. Most landscapers currently do not have a composting program to utilize this material. Most of this organic material ends up in sanitary landfill sites which are being rapidly filled to capacity. Many communities are passing regulations limiting the disposal of landscape wastes in landfills.
A common practice by professional landscapers is to simply blow plant debris off the property and into the street. Vehicular traffic then blows this material on neighboring landscapes or back onto the freshly blown site. Material is rarely moved into a pile where it can be collected and taken to a compost pile for proper recycling.
Another hidden cost of leaf blowers is that they deprive flowers, shrubs, and trees of life-giving mulch. Without this natural blanket, erosion, water evaporation and the spread of disease all become problems. Mulch, when not blown away, creates a favorable growing environment for plants and beneficial organisms both above and below ground while adding nutrients to the plants root zone. When mulch is removed to the compost and renewed annually many soil borne diseases are kept to a minimum.
Blowers use nonrenewable fossil fuels while creating air pollution. This is a serious problem in the Sacramento area.
Perhaps the major complaint most professional landscapers receive about the use of blowers is noise pollution. This is a serious problem that has resulted in local ordinances regulating the use of power blowers. Clients, their neighbors and the operator are all impacted by the howl.
This paints a bleak picture for the power blower. It is perhaps the most over and inappropriately used landscape tool. Autumn's tremendous amounts of organic debris that requires collection might be considered appropriate use of this tool. However, the weekly routine of blowing abuses the soil and damages landscape plants while the noise generated creates ill will from neighbors and clients alike. Leaf rakes deserve a renewed interest in the maintenance of landscapes.
The landscape maintenance industry should join BUGS and take a positive approach to blower bans. Old fashioned leaf raking can be a renewed service that their business could provide. It could be used as a selling point--no noise and environmentally sound too! Approach it right and they could charge the client an appropriate fee for this service, especially if blowers are banned. This could even become a major selling point for some companies. It could lead to business growth and the hiring of more personnel to meet the demand. Environmentally sound landscapers should be able to turn this kind of legislation into a positive for their businesses, making it work to their benefit.
Citizens for a Quieter Sacramento:
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