It’s the whine of the season, when the infernal pitch of leaf blowers makes our blood run high. Despite the headbanger decibels, the warnings that leaf blowers pollute the air with fossil fuel and a toxic cocktail of particulates that get into the lungs, and the halting efforts to ban the behemoths across the country, homeowners around these parts insist on pulling the rip cord every November. Why can’t we regulate these two-stroke terrors out of their (and our) misery?
People strain to find images to describe the particular horror of leaf-blower noise. Some of my favorites: “the devil’s hairdryer,” and “the bastard offspring of bagpipes and an air raid siren.”
They average over 90 decibels, beyond the threshold for risk of hearing loss established by the Centers for Disease Control. But it is their unique combination of high-frequency and low-frequency sound waves that makes them so intolerable. The low-frequency waves travel farthest and produce the worst health effects, but the high-frequency waves (think dentist drill) add a certain piquancy.
In 2016, a doctoral student at Harvard’s School of Public Health took sound-level readings in 400 locations and analyzed thousands of noise complaints to create the Greater Boston Noise Report. Is it any surprise that leaf blowers ranked near the top of complaints, up there with jet roar and loud parties, especially at 7 a.m., when city ordinances allow most lawn work to start?
Los Angeles and many smaller suburbs ban the use of gas-powered leaf blowers altogether, but most communities only restrict their use to certain times of day or year, if at all. Enforcement is spotty. Efforts to require quieter and cleaner replacements, such as electric versions, run into opposition from lawn care companies and small-government diehards; civic meetings to discuss new bans are always raucous affairs.
But there may be hope in the next generation. In 2015 a Loeb fellow at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Arif Khan, began a civic initiative called Rake Harvard, where students and others came together to, you know, rake the lawn in Harvard Yard.
A recipient of a student sustainability grant from the school, Khan was interested in the intersection of the environment, personal wellness, and altruism. “People go to the gym, and that has a benefit for themselves,” he said in a promotional video. “I wondered if there was a way to capture that energy for the benefit of others.”
Khan and his classmates have graduated, and Rake Harvard has stalled. But Eva Leung, a Harvard alumnus who joined the 2015 initiative and now runs a nonprofit called Terra Cura, hopes to revive it. She sees breaking the leaf-blower habit as a means to “align human capacity around healing the land and each other.”
It takes time, but with the right mix of incentives and education, social norms can change.
Anyone can love raking leaves. Healthy exercise, communing with your neighbors, saving the planet — it’s a win-win-win, and you don’t even need an Ivy League degree. So Rake Harvard. Rake Boston. Rake Everywhere.Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.