Summer in the city

May 24th: The start to summer for many, although it doesn’t officially begin until the solstice on June 21st. This is the weekend when cottages are opened, boats get put in the water, barbecues are fired up for the first time and beer is drunk on docks, decks and in backyards across the country. (Or, now, in Ontario, possibly from a tailgate, if it is near a sporting event.)

May 24th also marks the beginning of the gardening season. Serious gardeners will have started long before this, perusing the newest seed catalogues. Even I, a total non-gardener, look through the offerings from Vesey’s and Stokes with the enthusiasm I once reserved for the Eaton’s Christmas catalogue.

Those who know what they’re doing in the gardening department ordered and planted their seeds some time ago, and now the seedlings are flourishing under grow lights, just waiting to be planted outside. Some hardy crops like spinach and peas are already in the ground, and the tips of asparagus and rhubarb are emerging as diligent gardeners work to clear away the accumulation of dead leaves and plants that have protected the soil over the winter.

Whatever has been done earlier in the year, this weekend the work begins in earnest: moving the marijuana seedlings outdoors, planting flowers and getting the garden equipment cleaned up and ready for the next few months of heavy labour.

No spring peepers here

What’s that sound I hear in the background as I hang the laundry on the clothesline for the first time this year? It is certainly not the spring peepers heralding the new season, a sound I looked forward to hearing around this time when I lived in the country.

Nope, it is the urban audio sign of spring: the sound of the leaf blower.

I detest these machines. Admittedly, I have never done yard maintenance work, so perhaps I don’t have the right to complain about a piece of equipment that, presumably, makes cleaning up leaves and other yard detritus easier and faster, but complain I will nonetheless. They are noisy and smelly, and those who use them seem to have an unerring ability to fire them up just when the rest of us are winding down, perhaps settling into a lawn chair with a book and a drink at the end of the day.

According to recent statistics, there are 2.5 million leaf blowers in use in Canada. That means, if we count every single one of Canada’s 37 million people, there is one leaf blower for every 15 of us. On a sunny Saturday afternoon in my neighbourhood, it can feel like there is one for every three or four of us.

The lawns are alive with the sound of leaf blowers

Leaf blowers generate a particularly penetrating sound that can carry through an entire neighbourhood, polluting the outdoors but also moving through walls and windows into people’s homes. According to research conducted in the United States, one leaf blower can affect an entire neighbourhood, with its noise travelling at least 800 feet.

Ongoing exposure to this noise can have a negative impact on hearing as well as cause cardiovascular disturbances, psychological distress and disruptions to learning and concentration. I can certainly attest to this last impact: I spend much of the summer working from my home office with the windows open so I can enjoy the fresh air. However, every time one of my neighbours turns on their leaf blower, my concentration is completely disrupted and it takes me some time to get my focus back. Forget trying to have a telephone meeting or record a webinar.

Air pollution is also a problem: according to retired chemical engineer Monty McDonald, anyone standing close to a leaf blower is exposed to 10,000 parts per million hydrocarbons, many of them carcinogens, which far exceeds the industry standard for workplace exposure. Those machines emit carcinogens even when they are turned off. McDonald notes:

“Thirty per cent of fuel is unburned and goes out into the atmosphere as an aerosol. If you’re smelling it, you’re ingesting it.”

Seeking the sounds of silence

Communities have begun to say no to leaf blowers because of their noise and air pollution. A number of cities have implemented total bans on the machines; others have established bylaws to permit only leaf blowers with a noise level below 65 decibels; others require operators to obtain a permit; still others are working towards a phase-out, while encouraging homeowners and small contractors to use battery-powered alternatives, which are quieter and emit no noxious fumes.

More than 100 municipalities across the United States have implemented total bans despite, not surprisingly, strong opposition.Municipal workers and small contractors point to the increased workload when leaves must be gathered the old-fashioned way, using a rake.

Canadian communities have been slower to move towards a ban. Janice Carr, a pharmacist and medical writer who lives in Beaconsfield, outside Montreal, notes that leaf blowers don’t just contribute to noise pollution but also break down dust and dirt particles into microscopic bits that are then absorbed into the lungs and blood stream:

“I want them banned altogether. There’s no rationale for having them at all.”

Beaconsfield’s council agreed with her: after a heated debate last July, it voted 5 – 1 to ban the use of leaf blowers from June 1 to September 30 each year, making it one of a very few municipalities in this country that are limiting the use of the machines at all. (This ban carefully stays away from limiting use during the heavy leaf blower seasons of early spring and late fall.)

Spring and summer evenings framed with the sounds of children playing and the aroma of barbecuing food rather than the sounds and smells of leaf blowers. Imagine that.

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