Being well into my 87th year it takes me a while to catch up on my reading. And, with delight, I eventually encountered the piece, “Get off my lawn!” in the April edition of The Atlantic magazine. The article was all about leaf blowers and the author’s successful three-year quest to have them banned in Washington, D.C. Really must congratulate the writer, but caution him, as you will see below, that the job is but half done.
Some ten years in the past our little burg enacted a regulation against the use of gasoline-powered leaf blowers. Those ubiquitous, noisy, soot-exhausting devices that seem almost to be a physical anomaly on the back of our personal yard workers. At the time, an ordinance was based upon the high decibel levels produced by the machines. I happened to be the very first person to be cited because the fellow who managed our wee plot of green used one of the odious devices. The citations were to be given to the property owners who hired the leaf blower-wielding workers. I was not happy with that process and hurried out along my street and the adjacent commercial block and found seven other leaf blowers in action and promptly informed Code Enforcement. The outcome was that I received an email absolving me of my crime and rescinding the fine of $55. This is not the end of the story.
For the last 35 years of my working life – ending ten years ago – I was a hands-on consultant/trainer in the occupational safety, health, and environmental trade. I knew all about two-cycle engines (also known as two-stroke engines) and was quite aware of the noise, but more importantly, of the amount of unburned particulates and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) they produced. There are thousands of such engines popping away in places one would never guess. Beside leaf-blowers, yard workers also use hedge trimmers, edge trimmers and lawnmowers, all powered by small, two-stroke engines. Let us not overlook chainsaws, motorbikes and some small personal movers. My concerns then, as now, were for the protection of the environment, which includes nearby human and animal beings, and the worker. After discussing the rationale behind the West Hollywood regulation with the folks at City Hall, I wondered why the regs stopped at leaf blowers and only the noise aspect and did not also cover the other instruments these yard men (landscapers) use.
Just last week, Miguel, who chases leaves around my house, brought another worker with him and between them flailed the landscape with string-trimmers, hedge trimmers, and leaf blowers. Thankfully, no lawnmower as I have no grass to trim. Noise and stench of engine exhaust followed. The federal EPOA tells us that about 30% of the fuel used in these machines exits the exhaust port in the form of unburned particulates (soot) and VOCs of varying degrees of toxicity- and we all breath that exhaust. Ten years ago the answer I was given at City Hall was that the city felt that banning the other machines would endanger the livelihood of the workers. This is the sort of answer one gets in a town which has many residents up in arms over a proposed “women-only club,” but not over the environmental harm of small engine exhaust.
Probably 35 years ago, in a study I made of two-stroke engines, I put together a folio – with pictures – to illustrate the failure of leaf blowers to truly do the job most yard workers expect of them. It is not just leaves that get blown around. The machines move only the heavier dirt and dust particles along with the leaves, the lighter particles simply fly up into the air and resettle on any available surface – which means that patio and garden furniture must be cleaned additionally after the workers leave. Cars parked nearby are left with a fresh coat of dust also. And we must breathe not only the exhaust but the dust. My claim was that the machines are only partly efficient and brooms, rakes and the occasional use of water are more broadly efficient, although regarded as the tools of troglodytes.
However, removing all these yard worker’s tools would be equivalent to eliminating an entire working group and the mainstay of many families. Yet, we have to come to grips with the problem. The EPA estimates that within just a few years, in California alone, the growing number of two-stroke engine’s exhaust output will be equal to the emissions of all the automobiles in the state. Will West Hollywood be willing to be the first city brave enough to wrestle with the problem and start on the road to solving a major environmental issue? The movement must begin somewhere, why not here?