An Environmental and Health Nightmare

Berkeley residents support protecting the environment. Berkeley was the first city to ban Styrofoam cups, pioneered curbside recycling, and likely leads the country in per capita ownership of Priuses and electric cars. In fact, electric car charging stations adjacent to homes are a common sight during pandemic walks.

Berkeley residents are on the progressive side of debates over climate change. So why do so many Berkeley homeowners hire gardeners who use loud, environmentally destructive and health-damaging gas-fueled leaf blowers? Leaf blowers that violate Berkeley law?

According to Berkeley Municipal Code Section 13.40.070 (B) (14), “it shall be unlawful for any person, including any City employee, to operate any portable machine powered with a gasoline engine used to blow leaves, dirt, and other debris off sidewalks, driveways, lawns, or other surfaces within the City limits.”

The leaf blower ban is ignored in Berkeley. The city makes no effort at enforcement despite the ease of identifying violators (their noise and visibility give them away). Berkeley officials have not even undertaken a public education campaign to stop these environmentally destructive uses occurring on a weekly basis.

Adding to our climate and health crises

Gas-powered leaf blowers worsen the climate crisis. They create more emissions in 30 minutes than does driving a pickup truck 3,800 miles—-and gas-fueled leaf blowers are used weekly at many Berkeley homes. There has been a lot written on this environmental nightmare, and articles can readily be found by Googling the term. Journalist James Fallows has been writing about the evils of gas-powered blowers for years.

Why do Berkeley residents concerned with climate change use gas-powered leaf blowers that worsen the crisis? I offer two answers.

First, many do not pay attention to what their gardener does. They hired a weekly gardener who spends nearly half their time blowing leaves. I often see gardeners blowing leaves from the middle of the street to an adjacent home’s gutter. Do homeowners really care about leaves on the street? Or is this about gardeners just filling their allotted work time?

Second, some owners never communicate with their gardeners about the tools they use. Sometimes there are language barriers. Many gardeners are immigrant workers. Yet Berkeley residents’ concern with immigrant workers often does not extend to their own backyards; these workers bear the brunt of the negative health impacts of using gas-fueled machines. Berkeley is deeply concerned with public health and worker protections across the nation and world—but looks the other way to avoid addressing the health hazards of gas-fueled leaf blowers.

Berkeley’s inaction also threatens kids’ health. Fallows cites a 2010 letter by the pediatric medical staff of Mt. Sinai hospital urging leaf blower restrictions “because of the damage done to children’s lungs.” The American Lung Association has spoken out on the health risks as well.

Blowers make a racket

Gas-fueled leaf blowers disturb the tranquility of entire neighborhoods. For several hours each week residents of many blocks are subjected to the industrial racket of the gas-fueled leaf blower. But education works. I began distributing Dear Neighbor letters about the evils of gas-powered blowers on my block and nearly all have converted to battery or electric since.

This noise and environmental damage is completely unnecessary. Battery or electric leaf blowers do just as good a job blowing leaves. Gardeners also have a quiet and very effective tool to clear leaves—it’s called a rake.

A solution

I’m told Berkeley lacks the staff to enforce the gas leaf blower ban or engage in a public education campaign about their impact. So here’s what everyone concerned about gas leaf blowers can do.

First, write a “Dear Neighbor” letter about these illegal blowers and distribute it to those using these machines on your block. Or email a link to this story. I found almost universal receptivity. Residents who learn about the environmental and health impacts quickly switch to battery or electric blowers or rakes.

Second, bring the issue up in your local social groups/clubs. In-person events aren’t happening but people can still help spread the word.

My goal is to end gas-fueled leaf blowing in Berkeley by Earth Day 2021, which is April 22. This will enable us to have a festive Zoom celebration on Earth Day. Let’s make it happen!

Randy Shaw is a longtime Berkeley resident who writes about environmental activism in his book, ‘The Activist’s Handbook.’
Randy Shaw is a longtime Berkeley resident who writes about environmental activism in his book, ‘The Activist’s Handbook.’