Blowing in the Wind
As the city of Alameda grapples with leaf blower use, unanswered questions about dust could give operators pause.
Photo illustration by Paul Haggard
Emmanuel Williams saw two little girls playing outside the apartments across from his home on Alameda Point earlier this year. When the girls went inside in for lunch, a guy with a gas-powered leaf blower came along. “He blew leaves and bits of grass from one area to another for a while then moved around the corner,” Williams said.
Then, the girls came out to play again. “But now the air they were breathing was full of bad stuff. Dust. Gasoline. Dog’s fecal matter,” Williams said. “It made me angry.”
The scene was so disturbing to Williams that it prompted him to ask Mayor Trish Spencer to ban gas-powered leaf blowers on the Island.
And Williams is not alone in his anger. Leaf blowers and their jarring noise, noxious emissions, and clouds of dust have been ticking off people ever since they blasted onto the landscaping scene in the 1970s. Yet today, many backyard gardeners and professional landscapers continue to count these devices among their favorite tools, because they move clippings fast, thereby saving time and money.
Still, over the decades, in the face of growing questions about the impacts of noise, emissions and dust — especially on young, old, and sick people, and on operators of the devices — two dozen California cities have enacted ordinances to ban and restrict their use. Indeed, as Councilmember Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft noted at a June hearing to consider banning gas-powered blowers, “an ordinance is only as good as its enforcement.”
“I’m not saying not to do [a ban], but do we want to take the police off the street to pursue leaf blowers?” Ashcraft asked, as she requested that city staffers explore more nuanced ways to control leaf blowers.
Alameda Public Works director Liam Garland said 19 California cities (including Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Palo Alto) banned gas-powered leaf blowers, and five also banned electric-powered blowers. “Essentially, they’re saying, you gotta use your rake,” Garland said. He predicted that passing a similar ban here would present “a challenge.”
Instead, Garland encouraged residents to go electric, noting that the Parks and Recreation department is testing electric blowers in Lincoln Park to assess their efficiency, function, and cost. “Electrification of small machines like leaf blowers will likely be a huge focus of the city’s Climate Action & Resiliency Plan,” Garland said, noting that the city aims to complete a draft climate plan by March. “So, between now and March is the time to hammer this out.”
However, Alameda Parks and Recreation director Amy Wooldridge subsequently said that while staff members are testing electric blowers near the pool in Lincoln Park, the technology remains too inefficient for larger properties. She estimated that replacing all of her department’s small engine equipment, including blowers, would cost less than $10,000. “But staff time also has to be analyzed, to determine, if recharging is so inefficient that it makes better sense to use a rake,” Wooldridge said. She also argued that “electric blowers are no better at eliminating dust.”
And during the June hearing, Vice Mayor Maria Vella said it would be “hypocritical” to ban residents from operating gas-powered equipment, if the city is still using it. “Rather than just banning something, it’s really important to educate people and offer alternatives,” Vella said, noting that many people already own gas-powered devices and don’t know about the electric models. “So let’s put incentives in [the climate plan]” Vella said.
Ashcraft recommended approaching leaf-blower use as a public health issue: “It’s not healthy to operate a gas-powered leaf blower and breathe in those fumes, and it isn’t healthy for the environment,” she said.
All of which raises the question of just how much we know about the impacts of the dust these devices kick up. In 2017, the California Air Resources Board stated that operating a best-selling commercial leaf blower for an hour is comparable to driving a 2016 Toyota Camry for 1,100 miles. The difference, of course, being that a car produces emissions over a long stretch of road, while a blower dumps them in your yard.
But CARB information officer Karen Caesar noted that leaf blowers and other small engine-powered equipment are still much smaller contributors to smog-forming emissions than cars. “While [gas-powered leaf blower] emissions are less well-controlled than those from other sources, such as passenger cars, their small size makes them less significant sources of greenhouse gas emissions [about one-quarter of 1 percent],” Caesar said.
Still, a preliminary CARB study small engine operators’ (including leaf blowers) vulnerability to air pollutants and toxic air contaminants and the associated health risks indicated elevated levels of exposure, which may cause additional cancer risks and other adverse health impacts, Caesar said, noting that the findings, “show a need for a more comprehensive study.”
However, CARB lacks information about what’s in any specific leaf blower’s dust. “This will depend on what is on the ground where a leaf blower is used,” Caesar explained.
But air pollution regulators do know that reducing the use of gas-powered leaf blowers and other small engine-powered equipment slashes ground-level ozone pollution, especially on Spare the Air days, Caesar said. “And sweeping and raking are alternatives that do not contribute to ground-level ozone pollution and create less dust than using a leaf blower.”
Public Work’s Garland suggested that part of the shift in leaf-blower use could include neighbors talking about when and how to use them. “And instead of people raking leaves into the middle of the road for leaf blower operators to clear up, we’d rather folks get their leaves into their green bins,” he said.
Garland noted that Alameda already caps the number of hours that city workers spend outside on Spare the Air days. “But it’s worth considering whether residents would prefer the city not to use leaf blowers on Spare the Air days, and whether using them contributes to further spreading pollution,” he added.
Juan Monzon, spokesperson for the Emerald Landscape Company, which contracts with the city, said some customers requested that the company’s workers not use leaf blowers. “But once we told them the costs of using rakes and manual labor, they changed their mind,” Monzon said.
Emerald’s workers are provided with Cal-OSHA-approved earplugs and safety glasses, both are required to be worn, and all their trucks have face shields and masks. “We don’t require their use, but we encourage it,” Monzon added.
Sandra Giarde, executive director of the California Landscape Contractors Association, said “moderation” is the key. “We shouldn’t be driving our vehicles pedal to the metal every time we get into one, and we should be trained to operate leaf blowers at their lowest possible throttle and wear protective gear.”
Or maybe like cars, we shouldn’t always use them at all?
As Ashcraft observed, “In some areas, what about a rake or broom? There didn’t always used to be leaf blowers, but I’m pretty sure there always used to be leaves.”