He stands there looking like something out of Ghostbusters, an intruder in our neighbourhood. He’s wearing battle gear — giant goggles, ear protectors and a baseball cap. He looks proud and important as he grasps the powerful, metallic, two-stroke phallus with his right hand, blasting away any debris impudent enough to disturb the pristine driveway.
In my yard next door, thrushes and robins explode skyward. Squirrels abandon their acorns, leaping from branch to branch in a frantic scramble away from the noise. A stag lurches to its feet from under a Douglas fir. The bird feeder that swarmed with nuthatches, finches and chickadees moments earlier swings abandoned. It feels like I’m being violated. I’m sure he’s the same guy who power-hoses the driveway in spring to make sure nothing organic is visible on the black asphalt.
I scowl and mutter obscenities. Obsessed and determined, he ignores me. I hope he can lip-read.
I’m not just being a hothead. According to one American anti-leaf-blower group, Greenwich CALM (Citizens Against Leafblower Mania), the narrow frequency bandwidth of noise emitted by leaf blowers regularly provokes rage. In an odd way, I feel relieved it’s not just me, but the whole world that’s going mad.
Noise pollution is a serious problem. Vancouver city council passed a motion to ban leaf blowers in 2001; the ban came into effect in 2004. To aid in their deliberations, former B.C. cabinet minister and UBC neuroscientist Pat McGeer provided a compelling argument against the machines by firing up a gas-powered leaf blower in council chambers. The noise level reached 102 decibels at 1.5 metres and 90 decibels across the room.
According to the American Hearing Research Foundation, exposure to noise in excess of 85 decibels causes hearing loss.
As it turns out, I should feel sorry for my blow-hard neighbour. There’s a very good chance the noise from his leaf blower has already permanently damaged his hearing.
But it’s not just the noise we should worry about. Gasoline-powered leaf blowers contribute significantly to air pollution. Their emissions include carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons. Research by the Los Angeles chapter of the American Lung Association shows that a leaf blower operated for one hour causes as much pollution as a car driven for 100 miles. In addition, these high-velocity machines blow many harmful substances into the air including pesticides, heavy metals, fungi, dirt, ash, mould spores and fecal matter from rodents and other animals. These substances have been known to exacerbate allergies, asthma and emphysema as well as contribute to cardiac conditions such as arrhythmia.
Citizens across North America have rallied against leaf blowers, and many cities have banned them. The City of Victoria’s Noise Bylaw allows for the operation of leaf blowers in residential areas “only between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. on a weekday” and “between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on a Saturday, Sunday or holiday.” That’s fantastic! They’ve left me such a window of opportunity for peaceful gardening. I can’t wait to set my alarm for six in the morning on weekdays so I can get half an hour of quiet weeding in before I head out for the day. Better yet, I can put on night-vision goggles when I get home so I can see well enough to straighten out the flowerbeds. I’m heartened to see they’ve been even more generous with us on weekends so we can garden in our dark yards at a more leisurely pace. I can’t wait. The bylaw also states that blowers must be less than 65 decibels when tested at full throttle. I wonder how most of Victoria’s leaf blowers measure up and who’s checking on their noise levels.
The old-fashioned alternative to leaf blowers has many benefits. The American Council for Fitness and Nutrition says that the average person burns approximately 150 calories in half an hour of leaf raking. In addition, raking builds upper body, core and trunk strength. And if you rake leaves instead of blowing them, you might find yourself using the additional 12 muscles required to smile back at the folks next door.
Victoria may be known as the City of Gardens, but if leaf blowers prevail, it may soon have to change its name to the City of Landscape Gardeners as fewer and fewer people are able to enjoy working on their own properties.