The Sunday Edition

Why do we put up with the ear-splitting obnoxiousness of leaf blowers?

Lawn maintenance companies and some homeowners are devoted to leaf blowers as the best way to get rid of grass clippings, leaves and debris. Not only do leaf blowers shatter the peace, they also spew noxious fumes. Efforts to ban them have been largely unsuccessful, but that hasn’t stopped retired engineer Monty McDonald, who has been on an anti-leaf-blower campaign for years.
There are about 2.5 million leaf blowers in use in Canada, and more than 130 million in the U.S. (Brady Lane/Marshfield News-Herald/Associated Press)
Listen16:17

Lawn maintenance and landscaping companies swear by leaf blowers as the most efficient way to clean up yards. Others swear at them.

Sales of the leaf blower dubbed "the devil's blow dryer" by some have been steadily climbing since these machines first were introduced as a gardening tool, replacing the low-tech rake and broom. According to the most recent statistics, there are about 2.5 million in use in Canada and more than 130 million in the U.S.

Anti-leaf-blower activist Monty McDonald rakes leaves in his Toronto backyard. (MaryAnne McDonald)

For retired chemical engineer Monty McDonald, even one is too many. He has been campaigning for a leaf blower ban for years because they cause both noise and air pollution.

McDonald worked with potential carcinogens in a chemical plant, where the safety of the workers was a top priority. 

"We got the levels in that plant down to 10 parts per million in the workplace, which was the OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] standard at that time," he said in conversation with The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright.

"Now you stand near a leaf blower and you're probably getting 10,000 parts per million exposure to hydrocarbons that are in gasoline and oil, and many of them are carcinogens."

His concern is about the effects of the two-stroke engine, which is also used in some lawn mowers.

"Thirty per cent of fuel is unburned and goes out into the atmosphere as an aerosol," McDonald said.

"If you're smelling it, you're ingesting it."

Lawn maintenance workers usually blow grass clippings down the street, then a competitor might come along and blow them back. This adds to McDonald's concern because of the fine particles that are also sent into the air, such as dust, pet excrement and carbon black from the road.

"I leave my grass clippings on the lawn as mulch and all gardeners recommend doing that," he said. "Just leave them there. They're 90 per cent water and in a few days they'll all dry up, so you'll hardly see it."

The noise is also harmful, he explains, because it's at a low frequency and easily penetrates the walls and windows of peoples' homes.

Many people are ambivalent about a ban on the use of the leaf blower and McDonald believes this is because of the view that "since the government is allowing it, it must be okay."

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview. 

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