Leafblower Legislation: The WaPo and the Current Weigh In

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
You can never start them too young! Little Tikes Bubblin’ Leaf Blower, waiting for you at Target.

Two updates on local coverage of the initiative I’ve been describing in the past few months: the D.C. effort to speed the transition from gas-powered leafblowers using dirty, noisy two-stroke engines to a range of alternatives, including the emerging generation of much quieter, dramatically less-polluting electric models.

In case you’re wondering, why does this deserve notice as a problem?, here’s a recap. The obvious issue is the noise, but the real reasons for attention, in my view, are pollution, environmental justice, and public health:

  • Two-stroke gas-powered engines are so exceptionally polluting that they have been banned in almost all applications except lawn equipment. Simplest benchmark: running a leafblower for 30 minutes creates more emissions than driving a F-150 pickup truck 3800 miles. About one-third of the gasoline that goes into this sort of engine is spewed out, unburned, in an aerosol mixed with oil in the exhaust. Cities like Jakarta, Bangkok, and Manila are eliminating two-stroke engines as part of their environmental push.
  • Emissions from the engines, combined with the dust, mold, and other fine particulates created by the high-velocity (up to 200 mph) wind from the blowers, create public-health problems for a community. In a famous letter in 2010, the pediatric medical staff of Mt. Sinai hospital supported leafblower restrictions because of the damage done to children’s lungs. The American Lung Association has spoken up to similar effect.

    But the greatest risks, of course, are to the workers who use these machines for many hours per day — and who, in big cities like D.C., are typically low-wage, non-English-speaking immigrants. That’s why I think people who say, “Oh, this is a fancy-pants first-world problem” have it exactly wrong. In effect they’re saying: Don’t bother me with details about what I’m asking these workers to do to themselves, and what lung or hearing problems they might have several years from now, when they’ve gone somewhere else and I don’t have to think about them any more. Right now my lawn looks nice! (See also: don’t bother me with details of what’s happening in those garment factories in Bangladesh. I love the prices at H&M!)
  • The alternative technology of battery-powered equipment is evolving fast enough to make this a plausible option for the commercial landscaping companies that would laugh away the idea of using rakes. I mentioned one of the low-emissions, low-noise models here. Like everything in the world of modern battery-tech, these devices are expensive now but will move quickly down the cost curve as volume moves up. How can I say this? Because half the investment bets being made in Silicon Valley — on energy systems, electric-powered transportation, mobile devices, space equipment — are based on the assumption of rapidly falling battery prices, and are also meant to accelerate that process.

Now, the new developments: One is the latest story from a publication that has consistently done a good job of covering the merits, the economics, the scientific arguments, and the politics of the issue: the local Current newspapers in D.C.  The front-page story by Brady Holt in the latest issue, which you can see in a PDF here. It’s about the next steps the City Council may consider, and the forces pro and con.

The other is a story by Perry Stein in the Washington Post, which ran online last week and in the Sunday print paper yesterday. As Chris Bodenner summed up in a Note when the online version appeared, this article frames the leafblower issue as a personality story, in which the personality happens to be me. That wasn’t what I expected the story to be about when talking with the reporter, to put it mildly,  but this is life in the realm of Civic Engagement! The story does set out how and why my wife and I happened to become involved in an effort that a number of other people here locally had begun.


I’ve been away from the online world for quite a while, on a big push for a cover story in the March issue of the magazine. More about that anon, and on other topics starting later today. Thanks to those writing to ask whether I’d left to join the circus, keeled over, become a lama or a freight pilot, etc.