Leaf blowers damage the atmosphere, annoy the eardrums and churn up particles that contribute to respiratory diseases, yet they’re commonplace throughout the Peninsula. But now Burlingame might join Peninsula cities such as Los Altos, Palo Alto and Menlo Park in banning the ubiquitous noisemakers.
The ban was proposed by the Citizens Environmental Council of Burlingame, which drafted a 40-page report on the topic last December. The group wants all blowers banned, but definitely gasoline-powered ones.
“The main reason for the ban is quality of life, particularly in the downtown area,” council Treasurer Kathy Merriwether said. “With three leaf blowers going you can’t even hear a phone call ... you can’t even breathe.”
The council’s report said blower noise regularly reaches 90 to 110 decibels — well over legal limit. But Valentin Gonzales of the Bay Area Gardeners Association called that accusation flat wrong. He said leaf blowers that run above 65 decibels haven’t been sold for decades.
Gonzales said the ban would put gardeners out of work.
“If we stop using the big gas-powered leaf blowers, we have to increase our rates — and this is not the right time with the way the economy is,” he said. “A lot of our clients have already backed off.”
He estimated that a ban would push gardener’s rates up 40 to 50 percent, since cleanup times would increase as workers switched to rakes, brooms or even their hands. And converting to electric blowers is not viable, he said. Gardeners typically work 10 to 12 houses a day, he said, and batteries for electric blowers don’t last that long.
“You have to carry a generator in your truck, so it’s more noise and pollution,” he said. Another alternative, using vacuums for leaf removal, is not efficient, Gonzales said. “You’re better off with a rake.”
According to an ongoing citywide survey of 632 people, residents are split on whether to ban gas-powered blowers but slightly oppose banning electric blowers, City Manager Jim Nantell said. The survey found that an existing ordinance limiting use to the hours of 9 to 5, Monday through Saturday, and 12 to 4 on Sundays and holidays, was unknown to 62 percent of city residents.
The difficulty of enforcing such rules is partly why other cities have adopted bans. The alternative is for neighbors to report blower users who don’t follow existing laws.
“I’m in favor of baby steps,” Merriwether said. “But we have members who want everything banned. I hope not to create something that pits neighbor against neighbor.”
Gardeners in Burlingame also might go to bat against a ban. Gonzales and other workers were part of a $5 million lawsuit against Palo Alto for the cost of blowers and lost business following its ban, but they lost the case. Gonzales said his main concern is that there be an alternative.
“It’s a piece of equipment we have to use,” he said. “If there were something else we’d be using it, but it’s so efficient.”
Meanwhile, the San Mateo City Council is considering revising its 1997 leaf blower ordinance, which lists hours of operation but lacks an enforcement mechanism.
The American Lung Association said Bay Area leaf blowers emit 15 tons of carbon monoxide a day, and an hour of use produces as much pollution as driving a car 100 miles.
The California Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, said leaf blowers expel air at 150 miles per hour, contributing to respiratory disease by churning particulate matter, including mercury, arsenic, mold, animal feces and pesticides into the air.
But Valentin Gonzales of the Bay Area Gardeners Association, who has been using the machines for 20 years, disputes those findings.
“I know gardeners who have used blowers for 40 years or more and they have no hearing or respiratory issues,” he said.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends that workers use ear protection, goggles, gloves and masks.
— Niko Kyriakou
40 Percentage of those both in favor and opposed to banning gas-powered blowers (20 percent undecided)
55 to 58 Percentage opposed to banning electric blowers
62 Percentage not aware of existing ordinance limiting use times
55 Percentage in favor of keeping current restrictions in place, which limit usage to 9 to 5 Mondays-Saturdays and 12 to 4 Sundays and holidays
45 Percentage opposed to reducing operating hours
Source: Results of Burlingame survey sent to 5,000 people; 632 have responded so far; responses will be accepted for one more week