Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Noisy and Noxious
distributed 12/5/03 - ©2003

I've been grumping and growling about something for several days. While my complaint might seem petty, there's some substance here worth examining.

The thing that got me started was a LEAF BLOWER. That's in caps to hint about the NOISE that it made, noise that broke up the sociable chit-chat at the end of a meeting.

Here in Colorado, fall is definitely shading into winter. The leaves are off the trees and the grass is dormant. I was sort of surprised, then, to see a lawn service truck pull up outside our meeting room, and have a crew start to unload their equipment.

Soon, an annoying whine was heard from the back side of the church building. It worked around to the side, getting ever louder and more distracting. Then it came around to the front, right outside our meeting room. While deafening is a bit too strong for what we heard inside, it certainly made conversation impossible.

I must say, though, that the guy who had that gas-powered monstrosity strapped to his back was persistent. He went back and forth, around and around, making sure that there were no leaves, grass clippings, slips of paper, piles of dust, small animals, or other moveable objects that had not been blown to someplace else. As a result, great clouds of dust and debris swirled around the building, and drifted throughout the neighborhood.

When I left the church, walking out onto the ever-so-tidy sidewalk, I had a sudden image of motorboats on a lake, a memory triggered by the pervasive smell of partially-burned oil and gas that still hung in the air.

Those of us at the meeting, the other people in the church, and anybody else in the neighborhood had been assaulted by what has to be one of the world's most asinine "labor saving" devices. My simmering anger, though, is more than a personal gripe.

The ever-so-efficient man who ran the leaf blower, I noticed, was not wearing a dust mask or safety goggles, and I don't believe he was wearing any sort of hearing protection. He was surrounded by noise, dust and fumes orders of magnitude higher than what annoyed us inside. He may consider himself fortunate to have a minimum wage job, and he may be thrilled that his seasonal work is still possible this late in the year. But I'm willing to bet that he soon will show signs of respiratory problems and hearing loss.

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I've been doing some research on leaf blowers. One important finding is that many other people find them to be really, really annoying, too. But beyond that, I found that leaf blowers create very real, very dangerous, and very avoidable pollution.

  1. Noise: Those little gasoline engines are loud -- more than 70 decibels when measured at a distance of 50 feet. That's a level generally considered unacceptable in residential areas. It is loud enough to disrupt conversation (and, as we noticed, completely prohibit talking when the machine is closer). It is loud enough to wake a daytime sleeper. At the close range experienced by the one running the machine, the sound can be more than 100 times louder, well into the realm that causes rapid and severe physical damage.

  2. Dust: Yes, "leaf blowers" do blow leaves around. They also are prone to creating clouds of airborne mold and fungus, pesticides and fertilizer, and fragments of fecal material (left behind from birds and dogs, I assume). When used along a street gutter, they will stir up many other sorts of chemicals. Air quality is already pretty poor in many cities, so blowing even more of those toxic substances into the air is a significant addition to health-threatening pollution. And, once again, the damaging effects will be greatly increased for the operators who are exposed to the pollutants for hours every day.

  3. Fumes: The small whiff I caught of a petrochemical cloud didn't reveal how bad that pollution was. Gas-powered leaf blowers (as well as lawn mowers, chain saws, snow blowers and other gizmos that use "2 cycle" engines) can send up to 30 percent of their unburned fuel out with the exhaust.

    A 2000 report by the California EPA determined that the average residential leaf blower produces 145 times more hydrocarbons, 7.5 times more carbon monoxide, and 11 times more particulate matter in one hour than a 1999-2000 light duty vehicle driven at 30 mph, getting 15 miles to the gallon. The hydrocarbon emissions produced from one-half hour of residential leaf-blower operation are equal to the emissions produced from driving 2,200 miles, comparable to a round trip from Denver to San Diego. Commercial leaf blowers with more horsepower (like the one I sniffed) are even more polluting.

My "extensive" research also shows that I'm not the only one who thinks that a rake, broom and dust pan will do a better job than just blowing all that stuff into the neighbor's yard. (I even came across a report on a series of tests where "a grandmother with a broom" consistently out-performed burly gardeners with high-powered equipment.)

Many communities are restricting these annoying, polluting, unnecessary devices. If the subject comes up in your town, I hope you'll support the regulatory cause. Limiting the things is an appropriate way to create a healthier environment, and justice for laborers.

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Was King David troubled by leaf blowers? From Psalm 55: "Give ear to my prayer, O God; do not hide yourself from my supplication. Attend to me, and answer me; I am troubled in my complaint. I am distraught by the noise of the enemy, because of the clamor of the wicked. I would hurry to find a shelter for myself from the raging wind and tempest."

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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