I offer two solutions to the gas-powered leaf blower problem. First, have the linear accelerator at Stanford open its tube or whatever, once a week, and blow all the city leaves out into San Francisco Bay. If we all know when this is going to happen, we can hide behind our radioactive shields and be safe. Yes, we could lose a few people here and there to a nasty atomic particle, but I guess that would be less than what we’ll lose, in the long run, with the gas blowers.
Am I whining about a First World problem? No. Consider: gasoline-powered blowers and other “SORE” (“small off-road engines” like lawn mowers, weeders, etc.) produce more ozone than all of California’s tens of millions of cars combined, according to the California Air Resources Board. A study done years ago by Edmunds Automotive Research found that a two-stroke gas-powered leaf blower produced 299 times more hydrocarbons than a Ford F-150 pickup truck (not to mention significantly more carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides).
Palo Alto’s ordinance prohibiting gas blowers in residential areas is not enforced. And a new state law banning all SOREs produced on or after January 1, 2024 may only be enough to slowly fix the problem. My other proposal: Go electric now. If you are using gas, make the switch; if you or your neighbors have a gardener who uses gas, ask him to make the switch. And if the gardeners really can’t afford it, help them.
Anti-gas laws and the push for electricity are often accused of being “anti-immigrant” because in many places the majority of gas users are Hispanic gardeners who use it to make a living. In fact, these laws aren’t just good for the planet, they’re “pro” for environmental justice for gardeners. Two-stroke gasoline engines, which inefficiently burn a mixture of gasoline and oil, are distinguished by the high concentration of benzene in their fumes. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, users of gas-powered blowers are highly exposed to “benzene, 1,3-butadiene, and other potentially toxic compounds” (including formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, particles and polyaromatic hydrocarbons). This type of exposure to known carcinogens poses a serious risk of lung and other disease.
Hearing loss is another health risk. From most gas blowers, owners are exposed to about 70 decibels, which is “moderate.” But a gas blower user receives about 100 decibels, or about 1000 times more (for every 3 decibel increase, the ear is twice as exposed and damaged). Prolonged exposure to 80-90 decibels can cause hearing loss.
Gas advocates say the cost of switching to electric is a burden on blower users and their customers. But do you remember the boycott of Californian grapes in the 1960s? Two of the central demands of the United Farmworkers were related to the danger that pesticides posed to workers. The “right” choice then was not to buy the cheapest and brightest grapes if it meant endangering the health of the workers. Is it a “right” choice now to risk the health of gardeners by using and tolerating owners of supposedly cheaper gas blowers?
In fact, there is good reason to believe that gas blowers are not, in the long run, less expensive to operate. A fairly recent and credible analysis estimated the two-year cost of running a gas blower five hours a day at $5,445; the estimated cost of a backpack battery blower (with batteries and charger) was $2,925. (See quietcleanpdx.org/facts-and-dangers.) Gas prices are rising and battery technology is getting progressively cheaper and better; batteries last longer and fast chargers are now available. Gardeners can easily swap the batteries.
I urge you, your gardener and your neighbour’s gardener to go electric. I believe that many gardeners are financially able to do this. If they can’t afford it, I suggest you help them; if you can’t do it yourself, find like-minded neighbors and pool your resources.
I recently circulated a flyer all over my block politely noting how dirty gas blowers are and offered a cash incentive to any gardener who gave me a gas blower and a receipt for purchased electricity. One of my neighbors then let me know that he would join me in the offer. (How about the city and/or Acterra do something like that? It would be cheaper than enforcing the code.)
So go electric. Better than benzene or a few neutrons coming your way.