Rake Against the Machine

Every year about this time, the Noise Pollution Clearing House gets a flurry of calls about leaf blowers. Some people don’t like them, and in California, the gas-powered models have been outlawed or restricted in several municipalities. They can’t be used within five hundred feet of a residence in Los Angeles.

The director of the Noise Pollution Clearing House is Les Blomberg, an Arden Hills native. He clearly enjoys his work. Reached at the group’s headquarters above a travel agency in Montpelier, Vermont, he had just come in from conducting a field test, using a hand-held decibel meter. He was measuring the sound produced by a rake. “We’ve done lots of readings on leaf blowers,” he explained with a laugh. “One of our guys was just curious how they’d compare.”

For the record, the rake, measured at fifty feet, registered forty-four decibels. That’s about four times quieter than the quietest leaf blower. Up close, the gas-powered models are noisy enough to permanently damage hearing. “The leaf blower is really a silly invention,” said Blomberg. “It solves the problem of ‘leaf pollution’ by creating a bigger problem of noise and dust pollution.

One might think the Twin Cities, with its solid if shrinking liberal core, would be predisposed to take up the issue, but that hasn’t been the case. A municipal clerk in St. Paul agreed to show me a few pages of recent noise complaints. It reads like a poem of urban malaise: “Working on cars till late hours of the night, dogs constantly running loose”; “Ethanol plant is louder than usual”; “Noise all night and during the day. This is so loud”; and the oddly moving “Noise complaint. Ringing in ears. Two tones.” But no mention of leaf blowers.

That fact put me in mind of something I once witnessed while driving east across the Ford Bridge in St. Paul. A few blocks ahead, I noticed a thick, brown turbulent haze. It looked as if one of the shopping centers at Highland Village was on fire. It turned out to be just two men at work, using leaf blowers to flush debris out of the foliage, onto the sidewalk, and into the street. The air had that strange color it takes on just before a total solar eclipse. The sound was like two angry chain saws. Nonetheless, the outdoor tables at a Starbucks, about twenty yards away, were fully occupied, boulevardiers sipping their lattes as if nothing was happening.

But something was happening: Two machines were “pushing relatively large volumes of air, typically between 300 and 700 cubic feet per minute, at a high wind speed, typically 150 to 280 miles per hour,” in the words of the California Air Resources Board. (“Hurricane wind speed,” that study noted helpfully, “is 117 miles per hour.”) The localized storm raises a cloud of dust that, according to a California grand jury, includes “fecal material, fertilizers, fungal spores, pesticides, herbicides, pollen, and other biological substances.” In an urban setting, the blower also stirs up what some studies call “paved road dust.” That would include your allergens, your heavy metals, and the residue that comes from brakes, tires, and engine exhaust.

The only place this issue has risen to the level of a political battle is California. It went on for years, and it isn’t over yet. “It was a battle of Democrats,” says Larry Rolfuss of the California Landscape Contractors Association in Sacramento. Hispanic workers carried the water for the landscapers, at one point staging a hunger strike in the state capitol over the issue. Los Angeles passed its leaf-blower ordinance in 1998.

One anti-blower activist was Joan Graves, still an active member of a group called Zero Air Pollution Los Angeles, and the wife of Minnesota-born actor Peter Graves. “They are really dreadful machines,” she said. Today enforcement is lax, according to Graves. She noted that the elderly and chronic asthmatics, who may suffer the most direct effects, may be the least likely to complain.

Robert Moffitt, communications director of the American Lung Association of Minnesota, agrees there’s a problem. Two-cycle engines are part of it, he says. They pollute as much as several cars can. Electric models solve that, but not the problem of the “fine particulates” leaf blowers stir up. “They get right past the body’s defenses and breathed deeply into the lungs, where they are trapped,” he said. —David Rubenstein