Ah, the sounds of autumn. For some, they are so satisfying — a bite into a crisp apple, the crunch of fallen leaves. For others, the sounds that accompany autumn set their teeth on edge, especially when it comes to leaf blowers.
Leaf blowers are gardening tools ratcheted up to 11. They are powered by electric or gasoline motors that propel air out of a nozzle to send leaves and grass cuttings flying. And, unlike lawn mowers, leaf blowers are probably the most villainized devices in the lawn care universe. Not only are they noisy and now used year-round, but for many, the level of noise they emit is unacceptable.
In the mid-1970s, when leaf blowers became ubiquitous in the United States, two California cities adopted early bans of the equipment. Carmel-by-the-Sea and Beverly Hills labeled the leaf blowers a noise nuisance and banned their use, a move that has been followed by nearly two dozen other California municipalities, as well as hundreds of other cities across the U.S. to some degree, writes Charles Mostoller for the Miami Herald.
What is it about leaf blowers that people hate? Is it the decibels? The constancy? Do leaf blowers pose real dangers to the health of users or others who happen to be within earshot? Increasingly, the answer appears to be "yes" —to all of the above.
Let's Talk About Dust, Baby
Leaf blowers may send leaves and lawn clippings for a ride, but the 180-280 mile per hour (290-451 kph) gusts also create a nose-clogging swirl of fungi, spores, herbicides and microbes. The resulting dust is so aggravating to people with allergies, asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory maladies that the American Lung Association recommends staying away from leaf blowers altogether.
Plus, leaf blowers are noisy. When you engage in conversation, you are exposed to a noise level of about 60 decibels, according to the Center for Hearing and Communication. If you are strolling on a sidewalk and a car drives by, the noise registers at about 70 decibels. A leaf blower, even at 50 feet (15 meters) away, can be up to 75 decibels — and that can wreak havoc with your hearing.
"Calling noise a nuisance is like calling smog an inconvenience. Noise must be considered a hazard to the health of people everywhere," former U.S. Surgeon General William H. Stewart told the Miami Herald.
Any noise above 75 decibels risks causing hearing damage, yet many people are exposed to a steady stream of sounds that range beyond safe levels, according to the World Health Organization. This is true of people who use leaf blowers, which can reach decibels well into the 90s and above up close, as well as people who hear them by being in proximity.
And then there's the air pollution. Operating a commercial leaf blower for one hour emits as much smog-forming pollution as driving a 2016 Toyota Camry from Los Angeles to Denver, which is about an 1,100-mile (1,770-kilometer) trip. Running a solitary leaf blower for 12 months would be like driving 80 vehicles for 12,500 miles (20,116 kilometers).
Most leaf blowers use a two-cycle engine, which is known for being lightweight and inexpensive. However, two-stroke engines require a mixture of gasoline and oil to operate, because unlike more complex engines, they don't have separate chambers for fuel and lubricants. When the engine is operated, approximately one-third of the combined fuel and oil mixture is wasted, which means that carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide and hydrocarbons are released into the air.
These three toxins are some of the main culprits in air pollution from leaf blowers. Carbon monoxide helps form smog. Nitrous oxide is a prime ingredient in acid rain and has been linked to global warming. Hydrocarbons are cancer-causing organic compounds that also contribute to smog formation.
Misunderstood or Misophonia?
Misophonia is a relatively newly classified condition in which people are angered by body sounds like chewing, swallowing, knuckle-cracking or breathing. Although leaf blowers aren't mentioned in the diagnosis parameters, it does stand to reason that misophonia may be related — even if distantly — to people's dislike of noisy garden equipment because they are extra sensitive to sound. And it often begins in childhood.
"I was really sensitive to dogs barking and I hated dogs mostly because of the noise. Everyone would be like, 'Calm down,'" a magazine editor told New York Magazine on the condition of anonymity. "I would just say you don't understand; this noise is actually killing me. It's killing me and I feel like I am going mad."
Preliminary data shows that misophones may have a hypersensitive connection between the auditory system and the limbic system, which is the part of the brain that is responsible for creating emotions. It's so much a part of life for misophones that they can be shocked when others don't feel or react the same way to certain noises.
Moving beyond misophonia to the general population doesn't alleviate the leaf blower irritation situation, either. Erica Walker, a doctoral student at Harvard University's Chan School of Public Health, discovered that it is far less irritating to create sound than it is to hear it. In a survey of 1,050 residents in more than a dozen Boston neighborhoods, Walker found the majority of respondents said they couldn't control or get away from noises like leaf blowers, and they believed that no one really cared that it annoyed them. What's more, leaf blowers have become an integral part of commercial lawn care, an industry that's part-and-parcel of most residential neighborhoods.
So, don't expect the noise to abate in most places any time soon — while leaf blower may sound like fingernails across a chalkboard to you, for the businesses that rely on them for a portion of their livelihood, it is probably music to the ears.