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Will Leaf Blowers Jeopardize Your Hearing?

Written by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Leaf blowers are a danger to your hearing as they operate between 90 and 115 decibels (dB), depending upon the model; damage begins at 90 decibels (dB)
  • Hearing is a complex function in which your body changes mechanical motion generated by sound waves against your ear drum into electrical impulses interpreted by your brain
  • Loud noise damages delicate hair-like structures inside the cochlea responsible for converting sound into electrical impulses. Hearing loss may present first as tinnitus, a ringing in the ear(s) not triggered by an environmental source
  • Age-related hearing loss may be prevented through a consistent exercise program and nutrient-dense diet. Protect your hearing from noise-related hearing loss using safety ear muffs and consider switching to a cordless, battery operated leaf blower

Inside your inner ear are tiny hair-like structures vital to your hearing. As you age, these cells begin to degrade, reducing your sensitivity to sound. However, you may also suffer damage to your hearing from exposure to loud noises.

As James Fallows, staff writer at The Atlantic discusses in this short video, dangers to your hearing don’t have to come from loud music, entertainment or massive construction machinery. The seemingly inconsequential gas-powered leaf blower may play a pivotal role increasing your risk of hearing damage and loss.

Even minor hearing loss is associated with negative consequences. After controlling for education and other important demographic factors, hearing loss is independently associated with economic hardship and underemployment.1

Social rejection, loneliness and avoidance or withdrawal from organized social situations triggered by hearing loss also increases the risk for depression,2 and since hearing loss reduces the ability to be alert to environmental cues that may signal dangerous situations, your risk of an accident also increases.

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University3 found a strong link between the degree of hearing loss and the risk for dementia. Hearing loss may also complicate the diagnosis and prognosis of those suffering from dementia.

Hearing and Loud Noise

Hearing is a complex function that begins in the outer ear and ends once sound waves are converted into neurological signals and transmitted to your brain. These electrical impulses are created in the cochlea after sound has vibrated your eardrum, moving a tiny group of bones in your middle ear, called the malleus, incus and stapes.

These bones are collectively known as the ossicles and amplify sound force, passing them to your inner ear and cochlea. Inside the cochlea, a conch shell-shaped structure, are 20,000 to 30,000 small hair-like fibers.4 The movement from these cells sends an electrical impulse through the cochlear nerve, which is in turn transmitted to the cerebral cortex in your brain where sound is interpreted.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO),5 more than 1.1 billion teens and young adults are at risk of losing their hearing due to unsafe levels of recreational noise. Nearly half of those aged 12 to 35 are exposed to unsafe sound levels from personal audio devices, and they estimate over 43 million young people worldwide are currently living with disabling hearing loss.

WHO recommends levels no higher than 85 decibels (dB) for a maximum of eight hours in the workplace in order to protect against hearing loss. However, they note many are exposed to levels of 100 dBs or more in entertainment venues. As a comparison, the American Hearing Research Foundation compiled a chart of approximate levels of common sounds, including:6

  • 30 dB — whisper in a quiet library
  • 60 dB — normal conversation
  • 90 to 100 dB — lawnmower, shop tools, truck traffic, chain saw, snowmobile; two hours maximum exposure without protection
  • 115 dB — sandblasting, rock concert, auto horn; 15 minutes per day maximum exposure without protection
  • 140 dB — gun blast, jet engine; brief exposure injures unprotected ears
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The Sound of Fall Weather

Fall weather used to herald the sounds of metal or plastic rakes against dry leaves and lawn debris. With the invention of the backpack gas engine leaf blower, the sound of fall has gotten noticeably louder. And, unfortunately, while these leaf blowers are highly productive, they also damage your ears and the hearing of those who happen to be nearby.

According to Nancy Napolitano, interim director of audiology at St Luke’s University Health Network, more people are arriving with noise-induced hearing loss than in years past, many of them in their 50s and younger.7 According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hearing loss is the third most common chronic health condition.8

Nearly twice as many report having hearing loss as suffering from diabetes or cancer. The more often people are exposed to loud noises over 90 dBs, the greater the damage. Nearly 53 percent of those between the ages of 20 and 69 who have hearing damage report they had no on-the-job exposure to loud noise, indicating their exposure may have occurred at home or at entertainment venues.9

Approximately 20 percent of adults with no job exposure to loud sound have hearing damage. It is believed hearing damage is triggered at 85 dB of exposure for approximately eight hours. To compare, traffic noise inside your car measures 80 dB, while a leaf blower can measure between 90 and 115 dBs depending on the device. Exposure to 90 dBs of noise for two hours can trigger hearing damage.

Nearly 7 percent of those between the ages of 20 and 29 report hearing loss. The prevalence rises with age, reaching 50 percent by age 50 and 68 percent by age 60.10

Noisy work environments, medications that affect your hearing, being over the age of 40 and a male are also risk factors. As discussed earlier, hearing loss is more than just an inconvenience. It can lead to cognitive decline, depression and anxiety, social isolation and even loss of income.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor,11 an estimated $242 million is spent each year on workers’ compensation for hearing loss disability. The first year of treatment in older adults is projected to increase more than 500 percent from $8 billion spent in 2002 to an estimated $51 billion in 2030.12

Tinnitus May Signal Hearing Damage and Future Losses

Many have experienced ringing in their ears, especially after being in a loud environment. Also called tinnitus, this perception of noise is not triggered by a source in the environment but, rather, is related to damage in the inner ear.13

In the past year, roughly 10 percent of U.S. adults have experienced tinnitus and more than a third of those have nearly constant symptoms. The exact experience differs from person to person. Some describe it as a ringing in their ears, while others as a high pitched hissing, low-pitched roar, chirping, screeching or even musical sounds.

Tinnitus may be experienced in one or both ears; it may remain constant or be intermittent; and some only hear tinnitus if they're in a completely quiet setting.14 In the past, the majority of cases were diagnosed after the age of 50, but recent data demonstrates it is becoming common in youth, likely due to an increased exposure to environmental noise.

In a study15 of 170 students between the ages of 11 and 17, researchers from McMaster University in Canada found “risky listening habits,” including exposure to loud noise at parties or concerts, were the norm. More than half the participants experienced tinnitus in the past, considered a warning sign for hearing damage.

Nearly 29 percent of the students had already developed chronic tinnitus measured by a psychoacoustic examination in a sound booth. Those with tinnitus had a reduced tolerance for loud noises, a sign of damage to the auditory nerves. When damaged, they prompt the brain to increase sensitivity to noise, essentially making sounds seem louder than they really are.

Tinnitus is also associated with coexisting anxiety and those with tinnitus have a higher risk of suffering depression and anxiety disorders. In one study, emotional exhaustion — or the feeling of being drained due to chronic stress — was a strong predictor of symptom severity.16

Age-Related Hearing Loss May Be Positively Impacted by Exercise and Nutrition

Hearing loss reported in those over 60 may be affected by age-related cell damage in the cochlea. While benefits from exercise range from weight loss, improved bone density and cardiovascular fitness to supporting your immune system, research has also linked aerobic exercise with a lower risk for hearing loss with age.

Using an animal model,17 research data showed sedentary mice lost important auditory structures in the cochlea affecting their hearing. Those who exercised experienced 5 percent hearing loss during their lifetime while sedentary mice experienced an average of 20 percent hearing loss.

Researchers estimated 70 percent of hearing loss in people over 70 is related to the loss of these structures. As your auditory system never stops working, it requires a high level of energy and a constant supply of oxygen and nutrients.

It is not surprising to also find nutritional imbalances may be another significant causative factor in hearing loss. Nutrients found to be most beneficial for protecting and improving your hearing are:18,19,20,21

  • Carotenoids, especially astaxanthin and vitamin A
  • Folate (vitamin B9)
  • Zinc
  • Magnesium

Nutrients function by protecting against oxidative stress and preventing free radical damage. This improves blood flow and reduces the damage to the cochlea related to a compromised vascular system. Those affected by noise-induced tinnitus may benefit from higher folate levels.

Folate lowers homocysteine,22 high levels of which have been associated with age-related hearing loss.23 The ideal way to raise your vitamin levels is through your diet. Folate can be found in fresh, raw (ideally organic) leafy green vegetables, asparagus, spinach, turnip greens and broccoli.

There is a difference between folic acid typically found in supplements, and folate. In order for folic acid to be used by your body it must first be activated into a biologically active form to cross the blood-brain barrier.

It's estimated nearly half of all Americans have difficulty converting folic acid because of a genetic reduction in enzyme activity. For this reason, if you take a B vitamin supplement, ensure it contains natural folate rather than synthetic folic acid.

Gas Powered Leaf Blowers Present Yet Another Risk

Aside from hearing damage, wearing a leaf blower strapped to your back may also increase your risk of exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF). The most dangerous pollution affecting you today is likely the invisible sea of EMF your body swims through daily. Your risk of exposure increases with your proximity to the source.

When the leaf blower is worn as a backpack, this places the source of EMF pollution directly against your body. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences,24 EMFs are “invisible areas of energy, often referred to as radiation, that are associated with the use of electrical power.”

Damage from EMF begins at the cellular level. Martin Pall, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of biochemistry and basic medical sciences at Washington State University, has identified and published several papers on the subject.25,26 

For an end in-depth discussion of how EMF exposure affects the development of chronic diseases, see my previous article, “Reduce EMF Exposure.” These are important concepts as they relate to your close contact exposure when using a gas powered leaf blower harnessed on your back.

Protect Your Ears and Reduce Your Risk of Hearing Loss

If you’re a homeowner or work in the landscape business, a leaf blower is likely the most effective way to remove leaves and debris from the property. But, before shouldering an engine-powered yard machine, consider switching to a hand-held, cordless, battery-powered option.

These are lighter weight, easier to handle and are not directly attached to your body over a large surface area — your back. If you must use an engine-powered leaf blower, it is vital you use ear muffs rated at least up to 120 dB. Although ear plugs are available, Napolitano recommends ear muffs as they are much easier to use, and provide better protection.27

It is also important to eat a diet high in nutrient-rich, organic, whole foods to protect your hearing. Foods high in nutrients important to your hearing include dark leafy greens, orange colored vegetables, quinoa, avocado and pastured, non-GMO, organic dairy products.28,29,30

The effects of noise pollution also extend to reduced sleep quality, increased risk of heart disease and rising stress levels. For a discussion of these effects and more, see my previous article, “Quieting Down Could Save Billions in Heart Disease Costs.