Ask a gardener what's appealing about gardening, and chances are “relaxation” will be part of the answer. Digging in the dirt, planting flowers—these are soothing and peaceful pursuits. But there's trouble in paradise, in the form of noise. As gardening gains popularity, so too do the power gadgets designed to save us time and energy. With loud power equipment in hand, what seems like an army emerges from the nation's front and back doors on Saturday mornings, and they don't turn off their engines until Sundays at dusk.
Darren Copeland is keenly aware of the stresses created by unwanted noise. He likes to sit at his patio table under the big tree in his Brampton, Ontario, backyard, “but on a Saturday afternoon, when everyone has lawn mowers and weed whackers running, it's just not pleasant.” Copeland is president of the Canadian Association for Sound Ecology, a seven-year-old organization that advocates for “improved acoustic quality”—which includes quiet—and he points out that regulations to control urban noise “have more to do with pain thresholds and the prevention of hearing loss, but the problem of noise goes beyond that: it can impact heart rate and the nervous system, and interfere with communication.”
While the harmful effects of pollution to land, water and air have been part of the public consciousness for decades, it's only relatively recently that excessive noise has been added to the list of public health hazards. In a report to the municipal Board of Health, Toronto's medical officer of health, Dr. Sheela Basrur, went as far as to state that “there is sufficient health and environmental justification to merit exploration of enhanced regulation of leaf blower use,” pointing out that 20 cities in California have banned the use of leaf blowers. However, whenever restrictions on leaf-blower use have been on the agenda in Canadian municipalities, great controversy has accompanied the debate.
Vancouver city council, for example, considered by many to be a leader in the fight against noise pollution, passed a motion in July 2001 to prohibit the use of gas-powered leaf blowers within 50 metres of residential premises, except during the months of October to January, and to ban the use of these machines altogether as of February 2004. According to the NoiseLetter, a journal published by the B.C.-based Right to Quiet Society, one of the most compelling arguments against the machines was provided by Dr. Pat McGeer, who did a live demonstration in the council chamber of a gas-powered leaf blower in action—the noise reached 102 decibels at 1.5 metres and 90 decibels well across the room. (A chainsaw's sound level is approximately 100 decibels.
According to the Noise Center of the League for the Hard of Hearing, damage to hearing depends on the intensity of the noise (measured in decibels) and the length of exposure. A general rule is that the louder the noise, the less time required before hearing is affected; continued exposure to noise above 85 decibels will eventually harm your hearing, and it can take as little as 15 minutes of exposure at 115 decibels to be dangerous to hearing. During exposure to noise, the centre suggests that “if you have to shout in order to be heard three feet [one metre] away, then the noise is probably too loud and could be damaging to your hearing.”