Shh! Can You Turn Down That Leaf Blower?

Technological overkill spawned a tool that creates more pollution than it cleans up.

Modern life is noisy. Freeway traffic, 6 a.m. garbage pickups, middle-of-the-night street sweepers, lawnmowers, 747 takeoffs, car alarms, and ghetto blasters pierce the ears and disrupt life.

Noise pollution leads the complaints to the quality-of-life hotline in New York City. According to the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, "Good neighbors keep their noise to themselves." The Clearinghouse also calls noise polluters "bullies, claiming rights and freedoms that are not theirs while degrading resources that are ours."

And what is the most egregious, the most loathsome, the most needless form of pollution from the noise bullies?

Leaf blowers. Blowers blare and screech, kick up dirt and dust, and accomplish nothing.

You know there's something wrong when a piece of equipment requires its users to wear ear protectors, goggles, and a mask. Former Los Angeles city councilman Marvin Braude contends that gas blowers emit 1,800 tons of carcinogenic, volatile organic compounds into L.A. each year.

Leaf blowers are the perfect example of technology run amok.

While rakes create no noise, leaf blowers irritate neighbors, generate CO2 emissions, and threaten public health. And what do they accomplish? Nothing. Instead of collecting dirt and leaves, they simply blow them around. Leaf blowers are "inappropriate technology," as defined by E.F. Schumacher in his book, "Small Is Beautiful."

Leaf blowers also illustrate the irrationality of "efficiency."

Pofessional gardeners argue that they'd have to charge more if they couldn't use blowers, because their work would take longer. This logic suggests that price is the only consideration. What good is efficiency if it disturbs the quality of life? As a society, we pay more for cars to make them safer and to reduce emissions. Many people are willing to pay more for healthier foods. Some are willing to spend to support local merchants instead of global corporations.

Most people would prefer to enoy a New England autumn without the stress of leaf blowers, but gardening interests are better organized. The leaf blower industry employs a full-time lobbyist who travels the country attempting to quiet antiblower legislative activity.

Yet despite the prevalence of leaf blowers, there is reason for hope. In California, 44 cities have enacted restrictions on blowers, including Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Dana Point, Laguna Beach, South Pasadena, Los Verdas Estates, and Claremont. Blowers have been banned in Berkeley since December 1990.

In Los Angeles, gas-powered blowers will be banned within 500 feet of residential properties, effective Jan. 1. Leadership was provided by actors Peter Graves and Meredith Baxter. "Leaf blowers are bad," said Mr. Graves. "They call them leaf blowers because, indeed, they do blow leaves around and around and around. But they also blow other things around," he says, mentioning fungus as an example. "Are we going to put gas masks on our kids?" Ms. Baxter says "it flies in the face of all rational thinking to continue using leaf blowers."

The California Air Resources Board has primary jurisdiction over lawn and garden utilities for the state. Its staff is currently developing regulations to cut emissions by leaf blowers, power mowers, weed eaters, trimmers, and hedgers by 45 percent. Public hearings will be held in 1998, and the regulations would go into effect in 1999.

Other cities around the country are beginning to restrict leaf blowers, too. In Scarsdale, N.Y., landscapers are not allowed to use any power leaf blower that is louder than 75 decibels. Two cities on Long Island, Oyster Bay and North Hempstead, place restrictions on the hours and noise levels of blowers.

The preamble to an ordinance in Winnetka, Ill., states, "The unlimited use of gasoline-powered leaf blowers impairs the public welfare, peace, and quality of life within the Village and the use of gasoline-powered leaf blowers at certain times of the day constitutes a public nuisance."

There is also some action at the federal level. Rep. Nita Lowey (D) of New York is sponsoring the Quiet Communities Act of 1997, which authorizes $5 million to reestablish the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Noise Abatement and Control, which was eliminated in the 1980s.

Leaf blowers are the remnant of an overly technological, effluent society. It's time for people to put away their noise machines, get out their rakes and brooms, and stop disturbing their neighbors. It's time for leaf blowers to be silenced.

* Ted Rueter enjoys the relative peace and quiet of San Luis Obispo, Calif. He is writing a satire, "Republicans and Other Reptiles."

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