Blowing leaves

15th of September 2011
Blowing leaves

Correspondent Tom Crockford reports from Helsinki in Finland on the problems caused by the use of leaf blowers.

The autumn always used to be considered by many as being the ‘quiet’ season. But that was before leaf blowers came along. The gentle autumn sun still shimmers on brightly coloured leaves, and the season continues to instil a feeling of calm after the heat of summer, and before the storms of winter.

But the once ‘quiet’ season has been hijacked by the high pitched whine of motorised leaf blowers, and city parks are regularly taken over at this time of the year by gangs of municipal workers armed with these obnoxious noisy, fume emitting machines.

The noise issue is indeed one of concern in many communities, particularly where leaf blowing takes place adjacent to hospitals, schools or other such noise-sensitive facilities. And then again, the decibel ratings given by the manufacturers are typically taken some 20 metres from the source. The operator of the leaf blower meanwhile has the source on his or her back, and is thus exposed to far higher levels of noise than those given in the manufacturer’s specifications.

In Scandinavia, most service companies are diligent in ensuring that their employees use hearing protection, but of course, exceptions exist. Private users appear to be far more cavalier in their approach to protecting their sense of hearing.

In Helsinki, however, another problem with leaf blowers has arisen, and it is a problem completely unrelated to autumn leaves. Although the City of Helsinki authorities specifically forbid the use of such machines for blowing sand and debris, workers employed by the Palmia Oy service company have been doing just that. The irony is that Palmia Oy is owned by the City of Helsinki.

The problem is that leaf blowers create a huge dust problem when used to clear pavements and school yards of sand. This in turn lowers the air quality and can be dangerous for people with serious allergies, such as asthma. Palmia’s web pages boast of the company’s commitment to the environment, as follows: “Our goal is to take environmental issues into consideration in all aspects of our activity, to make sure that the burden on the ecologic system remains as small as possible.”

The media has been quick to bring this variance between theory and practice to the public’s attention, much to the embarrassment of the company management. Naturally, the blame has been passed down to the local supervisors because top management was blissfully unaware that such practices were taking place! After all, a city owned cleaning service company contravening city environmental laws would be unthinkable. Wouldn’t it?

One assumes, nevertheless, that leaf blowers are here to stay. Raking is too labour intensive and time consuming to be economically feasible in today’s cost-sensitive world. But one would hope that limits on their use are imposed and upheld, for while they may be effective work tools, they are undoubtedly creators of considerable noise and air pollution. In the meantime, autumn can remain a season of beauty, reflection and calm – provided you stay far enough away from public parks.


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