As Mr. Fallows’s last point suggests, what’s bad for the environment is bad for humans, too — most menacingly, of course, for the employees of landscape services, who are exposed to these dangers all day long.
The risks come not only from the noise and the chemical emissions that two-stroke engines produce, but also from the dust they stir up. “That dust can contain pollen, mold, animal feces, heavy metals and chemicals from herbicides and pesticides,” notes Sara Peach of Yale Climate Connections. All this adds up to increased risk of lung cancer, asthma, cardiovascular disease, premature birth and other life-threatening conditions.
This month, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California signed a new law making his the first state with plans to ban gas-powered lawn equipment along with other machines, like generators and pressure washers, that use gasoline-powered engines.
Only the Environmental Protection Agency can set emission standards. But California, owing to its unique climate and geography, which allow airborne pollutants to coalesce and linger, is the exception to this federal limitation. Other states can opt to follow California’s more stringent tailpipe emissions standards, as 12 states and the District of Columbia do. Thanks in part to those standards, the passenger vehicles on California’s roads and highways collectively produce less pollution than off-road machinery does. Think about that for a minute: Lawn-care equipment creates more pollution in California than cars do.
More than 100 cities across the country have already passed regulations to ban or restrict gas-powered leaf blowers. For people committed to their manicured lawns, the good news is that powerful electric and battery-operated leaf blowers now exist, and they are quieter and greener and healthier than gasoline-powered blowers. Their market share is also growing rapidly; electric equipment now represents roughly 44 percent of lawn-care machinery sales.
But the trouble with leaf blowers isn’t only their pollution-spewing health consequences. It’s also the damage they do to biodiversity. Fallen leaves provide protection for overwintering insects and the egg sacs of others. Leaf blowers, whether electric or gasoline-powered, dislodge the leaf litter that is so essential to insect life — the insect life that in turn is so essential to birds and other wildlife.
The ideal fertilizer and mulch can’t be found in your local garden center. They are available at no cost in the form of a tree’s own leaves. The best thing to do with fallen leaves is to mulch them with a lawn mower if your lawn consists of entirely of unvariegated turf grass (which it should not, given that turf grass requires immense amounts of water and poison to maintain). Our yard is a mixture of grasses and clovers and wildflowers, so we can safely let our leaves lie. If a high wind carries them away, it’s hard not to wail, “Wait! I was saving those!”