Alarms Sound Over the Din Of Leaf Blowers

AH, autumn. Such a peaceful time. The color of leaves. A cool breeze. Football.

But then, there's the neighbor who shatters the calm with the wail of a leaf blower.

Rakes are going the way of the buggy whip. They are being replaced by the leaf blower, whose tympanic membrane-piercing whine has turned autumn into the noisiest season of the year. Some 9 million of the devices are now in use in the United States. Everyone, it seems, has a leaf blower for sweeping driveways, sidewalks, and lawns.

Much faster than rakes or brooms, the leaf blower saves time. But the precious time savings have come at the cost of peace and quiet.

Americans are inundated by noise. Throughout our cities and suburbs, airplanes, jack hammers, trains, trucks, chain saws, lawn mowers, and radios provide a continual cacophony. Alarms sound over leaf-blower din

Urban parks are bombarded by boom boxes and car stereos. Rural parks used to provide quiet refuge. However, many of them are subject to the same noise we experience in the city.

At Grand Canyon National Park, some 10,000 tourist flights buzz over the region every month. The problem has gotten so bad the Interior Department is looking at ways to quell the noise. The agency will soon release the findings of an eight-year-long study of noise pollution on federal land.

Studies show that up to 20 million Americans are subjected to dangerous levels of noise during their leisure time. Few of those leisure-time noises are as maddening as the leaf blower, which can create sound levels as high as 100 decibels, or the equivalent of an operating jack hammer. Most leaf blowers emit sound levels of about 75 decibels, the noise equivalent of operating a dump truck.

Citizen groups across the country have taken up the fight against leaf blowers. Ashleigh Brilliant of Santa Barbara, California, has campaigned for several years to impose a total ban on the machines. In 1987, the city adopted an ordinance which restricts the use of leaf blowers from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Saturday. They cannot be used on Sundays or holidays.

Mr. Brilliant thinks that isn't enough. ``Gardening used to be a quiet occupation, like stamp collecting or fishing,'' he says. ``It was something you did to have piece and quiet. Now it's associated with racket and technology. The level of noise in our neighborhoods has been growing for years. Now you can't avoid being intruded upon by noise.''

Communities around the country have begun dealing with the issue.

According to Robin Pendergrast, a spokesman for Echo, the nation's largest manufacturer of leaf blowers, more than 220 cities and towns have discussed restrictions. At least seven cities, including Beverly Hills and Carmel, California, have banned them completely.

Mr. Pendergrast says manufacturers are sensitive to the noise issue and many of them have begun making quieter machines. He agrees that some restrictions on leaf blower usage make sense. But he says, ``From an economic standpoint, a lot of cities can't afford to not have equipment that saves time and manpower.'' And he says, ``police have other things to do than enforce leaf blower laws.''

Citing citizen surveys, Pendergrast says the issue with leaf blowers is ``not an issue of loudness. It's showing up at obscene hours of the morning or evening and just being rude.'' He believes that educating landscapers and gardeners about proper use of the machines will go a long way toward reducing the perception that leaf blowers are bad.

In addition, he says that electric leaf blowers are quieter than the gas-powered type. Most communities in the US have tried to limit the use of the gas-powered machines while still allowing use of the electric models.

Leaf blowers are perhaps the most audible symptom of a situation that Paul Matzner, curator of the California Library of Natural Sounds at the Oakland Museum, calls ``the quiet crisis.''

``I think the level of noise has crept up on us,'' Mr. Matzner says. ``It's not part of our ethic to move quietly, either in the woods or in the city.... It's to the point where we don't know what a quiet place consists of and I think it's a major contributor to stress in our society.'' he said.

Matzner oversees a collection of bird calls and environmental sounds collected from around the world.

He became an active proponent for quiet eight years ago, after numerous field workers reported that recording natural sounds in the wild was becoming increasingly difficult due to airplanes and other man-made noise.

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